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Getting Sick While Traveling Abroad: What to Know

In a study published by the medical journal BMC Infectious Diseases, of 460 participants, 79% reported getting sick either while abroad or en route. It’s bad enough when you get sick or injured at home. But it can be seriously frightening when you’re disabled from sickness and confined to a strange environment where you may not know anyone or even speak the language. Whether your sickness is just a mild inconvenience or you need to find a doctor and medication, here’s what you need to know.

Why You’re More Likely to Get Sick While Traveling Abroad

Traveling abroad always carries inherent risks (but that’s no excuse to avoid it!). But it is a reason to exercise caution while traveling so you can stay healthy and enjoy every single day of your travels. You’re more likely to get sick or injured while abroad than you are at home. In the same report referenced earlier, travelers most commonly reported medical issues related to the following behaviors and incidents:

  • eating salads/raw foods
  • eating undercooked meat
  • drinking water from a source other than bottled
  • using hands to eat
  • infrequent hand washing
  • walking barefoot in treacherous terrain
  • exchange of bodily fluids with a stranger
  • insect stings/animal bites
  • falls/stumbles
  • insufficient hydration
  • excess consumption of alcohol
  • insufficient outwear/exposure to elements

There’s a reason why you’re more likely to get sick or injured abroad; because you’re doing things that you wouldn’t normally do and being exposed to new environments. But beyond the risky behaviors, you’re also likely to be more active in general while traveling. Unless you’re the type to sit in your hotel room all day, you’re probably out there exploring; hiking to waterfalls, exploring ruins, zip lining, learning new dance steps, staying out late, tasting the local cuisine and mingling with the locals. That’s what traveling is all about, after all. And it’s all worth it, as long as you’re prepared.

Of course, you could also get sick abroad from “regular” things like flu, sinus infection or migraine. And there’s the risk of a major medical emergency stemming from an underlying disorder. Again, preparation is the key to successfully managing getting sick while abroad.

How to Prepare For Getting Sick Abroad

Friends Traveling the WorldMost of what you need to prepare for a health issue while traveling abroad can be tucked into a spare makeup bag or a Dopp kit. Here’s what you should pack according to Passport Health:

  • anti-diarrhea medicine (i.e., Pepto-Bismol, Imodium A.D.)
  • ibuprofen
  • acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • any prescription medication you need (be sure it’s not on the foreign country’s list of controlled substances)
  • rehydration tablets to replace electrolytes (i.e., CeraLyte)
  • fiber supplement to combat constipation (i.e., psyllium husks)
  • antibiotic cream (i.e., Neosporin)
  • Band-Aids
  • sunblock
  • aloe vera gel for sunburn
  • aspirin
  • EpiPen if relevant

Consider Travel Insurance

The U.S. State Department suggests that you consider international travel insurance as a measure of protection against health issues while traveling abroad. Note that Medicaid and Medicare won’t cover medical bills incurred abroad. Also, while the U.S. State Department may assist you in the event of a medical emergency by notifying your family or helping you find a decent medical facility, they won’t pay for your medical bills.

The first place to look for travel insurance is your existing health insurance company. If they don’t offer a rider with the coverage you need, you can purchase travel insurance from a separate company. With any travel insurance policy you consider, you’ll want it to cover things like medical transport back home, emergency care, coverage in the country you’re traveling to, coverage for pre-existing conditions and coverage for any unusual activities you’ll be doing.

What to Do if You Get Sick or Injured While Traveling Abroad

If you do get sick or injured while abroad, don’t panic. Simply being exposed to natural bacteria in a foreign country can bring on some weird symptoms. That’s one big reason why people say don’t drink the water. The locals can drink it because their bodies have the enzymes and bacterial composition to handle it. On the other hand, foreigners might react with uncomfortable symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting.

Second, don’t assume overseas doctors carry the same credentials as U.S. doctors. Some countries are better for medical care. Others are more lax. If you’re in a third world country, contact the nearest U.S. embassy for recommendations on reliable treatment centers.

If you’re so ill that you’re bedridden, or if you’re traveling alone and get seriously sick, contact someone back home to let them know what’s going on. Keep them informed as to your plans and what/if any medical facility you go to.

Don’t consent to any invasive treatments until you speak to your own doctor beforehand. This is especially important if you’re traveling solo. If emergency surgery is needed, contact your insurance provider to see if you can get emergency medical transport back home, and to confirm which expenses would be covered.

Getting sick while traveling abroad can put at least a temporary damper on your travels. Most travel illnesses will likely only be short-lived and you’ll be out and about again in no time, taking selfies by the Trevi Fountain. If you prepare ahead of time and ensure that you have your health insurance in place to cover more serious issues, all will be well. Remember that worrying about getting sick abroad is no reason not to go in the first place.

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