Getting Sick in a Foreign Country: What to Know and Do

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Although we deeply love to travel, we wouldn't say it's easy. It might be hard to believe, but it's not always spent in a fantastic blur of making friends, eating good food, hiking unpaved paths, and discovering new stories.

At least, it's not that way when you're sick.

Mr. Nerd and I have been sick abroad a collective total of three times. It always happens when we least expect it—generally halfway to three-fourths of the way through a trip. One of us will wake up one morning not feeling 100% ... and it just goes downhill from there. It's not fun. In fact, I wouldn't wish getting sick abroad on my worst enemy.

When you get sick at home, you can generally curl up in bed and sleep it off. Easy access to soup, hot tea, all kinds of medication, a willing helper (such as a roommate, parent, or spouse), and knowledge that a hospital is nearby is a plus. There's a phone nearby and a bathroom to run to if things get a bit out-of-control. But most of all, you're safe and know exactly what you need to get better as quickly as possible.

Getting sick abroad is a different story. There's a level of panic that comes with this, especially if you don't have a plan before coming down with something unexpected. You're in a different country. You might not know the language well enough to navigate an explanation of your symptoms and the type of medication you need, you might not have health insurance that covers getting sick abroad, and that panic I mentioned earlier? That can mess with your ability to think calmly—more so if you're in some measure of pain or discomfort. As an added bonus, you may not have phone access, wifi access, or even a private room to sleep it off in.

(Don't get me started on camping.)

Because of all these things, it's a good idea to have a plan in place. I'm a firm believer in preparing for a variety of what if scenarios ... and for good reason. I had to learn this particular lesson the hard way.

Story #1

My very first trip abroad was to England in 2008. I was fifteen and going with my grandparents as a field trip. I'd never been out of the United States before this, so it was a big deal.

My brother happened to catch pink eye before we left. I didn't think anything of it when I hugged him goodbye ... until I also came down with pink eye a couple days after we arrived in London.

Cue panic! Cue discomfort!

Cue my English-speaking grandparents taking me to an English-speaking pharmacy in an English-speaking country that they'd visited multiple times before. They knew exactly where they needed to go, and I was in good hands. I received eye drops from the pharmacy, and the pink eye subsequently cleared up in a few days. By the end of our trip, I was right as rain again.

Story #2

Ben and I have a track record of things going horribly wrong during important "first" milestones. On our first anniversary, I fainted at a very important, very classy restaurant and was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance (don't ask).

On our first trip abroad as a couple, I contracted a very bad bladder infection. Cue fevers, shaking, nausea, intense abdominal pain, and—the kicker!—the presence of blood in my urine.

We were in Bordeaux, France at the time. Ben, his aunt, and me. I'd taken the lead on planning the trip because his aunt hadn't been abroad for a long time, and Ben hadn't been abroad ... well, ever. We were 100% on our own. I'd learned a teeny tiny bit of French, and the only service we could get on our cell phones we had to pay for (it wasn't cheap, either).

I was terrified. If I wasn't clinging to the bathroom like a safety net, I was attempting to get some sleep, albeit feverish sleep, because at least being unconscious kept me from recognizing the burning, unbearable pain I was in. We kept big bottles of filtered water on hand, and I guzzled them all with Aspirin.

Thank god for Aspirin.

We hit a point where we realized that a) the bladder infection wasn’t going anywhere and fast, and b) apparently bladder infections can spread to the kidneys if they’re left untreated. Who knew, right?

What saved us in our particular situation is that after scouring the internet for hours (we’d caved and bought 24-hour access) Ben found the name of the medication I needed in French. We wrote it down, and then his aunt and I hobbled across town, very luckily came across an English-speaking pharmacy, and ordered the medication over the counter for less than $7.

It was a gamble. There were dead bats and preserved snakes hanging in the windows of the pharmacy, but I didn’t care. All I wanted was the medication, which ended up making me feel a lot better.

Story #3

At the same time as my bladder infection adventure, Ben got viciously eaten by bed bugs at the Airbnb we were staying in. He ended up an irritated, painful, itchy mess, and while we'd packed Aspirin, NyQuil, cough drops, and some allergy medication, we didn't think to pack Cortizone (anti-itch cream).

We were a bunch of fun that trip.

In the end, we survived without taking too much damage, but it made us realize that we were woefully unprepared for the "what if" of getting sick abroad.

Tips & Tricks

To help spare you from the same fate, here are some tips we discovered as we bumbled our way through the various messes noted above! Keep these in mind before you travel—they might help!

*Please note that I am not a doctor. Always make sure you check in with your general practitioner before you travel.

Assess Your Symptoms

While getting sick abroad is never fun, there are different "levels" of sickness. Level 1 might be an annoying bout of allergies—which could be easily fixed with some allergy medication. Level 4 might be severe dehydration that lands you in the hospital.

If you feel you're coming down with something, assess your symptoms and decide whether or not they need to be addressed by a professional.

If you're sporting a nasty headache, for example, keep hydrated and get some rest. Unless it persists or grows worse, it's probably nothing to be concerned about. The same goes for stomach aches (which could be attributed to bad food, hunger, or stress), body aches (too much hiking or walking without resting up afterward), feeling too cold or too warm (outside temperatures, dehydration, coming down with a cold), etc. Consider what might be making you feel sick and try to eliminate those factors before you panic too much.

If you're coughing blood, on the other hand, don't try to self-diagnose yourself. Get help.

Consider Your Resources

If you're sick with something you can't cure just by resting in bed, consider the resources you have around you. They may not be as easily accessible as the resources at home, but they're worth looking into regardless.

  • If you have access to WiFi, take to the internet and look up information on the nearest pharmacy or hospital. You can generally find these on Google Maps.
  • Use the WiFi to look up the name of the medication you need in English and in the local language (of course, this depends on whether or not you know what you're suffering from. In the case of my bladder infection, I knew right away).
  • Write down the local number for a taxi if you don't have a rental car—just in case you need to go to the hospital ASAP.
  • Think about the shops near where you're staying. Would any of them sell medication? In Bordeaux, even small grocery stores had medicine aisles. Just be aware that they may not carry the specific medicine you need.
  • Ask a local for directions to the nearest pharmacy. This may or may not be helpful depending on a) how well you know the local language, b) whether or not they know English, and c) how safe it is to talk to strangers on the street.

Learn Key Phrases In The Language

If you're in a place that doesn't speak much English, it's worth writing down some key phrases in a notebook before traveling abroad—just in case. That way, if you need to stumble your way through a conversation so you can get help, you'll already be prepared.

I'd suggest knowing the following:

  • "Where is the hospital?"
  • "Where is the nearest pharmacy?"
  • "Take me to the hospital."
  • "Call the police."
  • "I need help."

If you don't feel comfortable with those phrases, at least write down the words for pharmacy, hospital, and help. Knowing how to mime and use hand gestures can help get your message across too. Or, if you've run out of options, you could draw pictures on a piece of paper.

Arm Yourself With Knowledge

It's very important that you arm yourself with knowledge before you travel. You wouldn't leave home without some form of identification or travel documents, would you? The same should go for important information.

When Ben and I travel, we make sure we have a copy of our travelers' insurance, the international phone numbers of our health insurance companies, a number we can use to reach our doctor for over-the-phone advice, phone numbers and information (card numbers, pins, expiration dates) on our credit cards in case we need to withdraw emergency money to cover doctor bills, the phone numbers of all our family members, the location of the nearest American Consulate, and more.

You cannot be over-prepared when it comes to your health and safety. I can't stress that enough. The more you know, and the more resources you have at your fingertips, the better off you'll be if something does happen that requires medical aid.

Stay safe and be healthy!