Fully updated May 6, 2022.
I originally published this post back in February 2020, after I’d been sick on a trip (likely with COVID but had no way of testing), but before COVID changed the world. The information was relevant, but so much has changed since then.
I was inspired to re-write this post because I was recently sick enough on my trip to St. Martin that I needed to go to Urgent Care. It was a little scary–would I get in trouble with the government? Would they think I intentionally traveled while sick? How much would a trip to the doctor cost? Would I need prescriptions? How much would those cost?
While the answers to those questions is different from country to country, I hope this updated post will help you navigate the less-than-ideal situation of getting sick while traveling. There’s almost nothing worse!
*I am not a doctor, so if you have any specific questions or concerns, please direct them to your doctor or a nurse! I can only write from my personal experiences.
If you’re like me and you try to be prepared before tragedy strikes, here is some general “sick on travel” wisdom to get you started.
Use Google Translate to find the local words for what hurts, and the meds you think you’ll need. I recently had to see a Dutch doctor on Sint Maarten, and even though he spoke excellent English, I took a few minutes to make notes of my symptoms in both English and Dutch.
Common Sense Hygiene
Wash your hands a LOT (and it doesn’t hurt to bring sanitizer wipes and do a once-over of your airplane tray table and arm rests). Sneeze or cough into your elbow or shoulder, not into your hands. Stay away from others whenever possible.
Uuuggghhh. I know! I hate face masks, too. But if you’re coughing and sneezing, it’s courteous to others to to keep your mouth and nose covered to avoid spreading whatever it is you have, especially on a plane or where it’s impossible to keep a distance.
If you purchased travel insurance, know your terms for trip cancellation, going home early, medical evacuations, and hospital visits. Unfortunately, you’ll have to be your own advocate, so know what you’ve paid for, and know what you have the right to get from the insurance company.
Take it easy and rest as much as possible. Even if that means doing a lot less than you planned, or staying in one place instead of hopping around every few days, it’s important to listen to your body’s needs, especially its rest needs.
I believe this is 100% each individual person’s choice, and I’m not here to have a debate about vaccinations. If you choose to vaccinate, be sure to get your flu shot each year, and make sure all your other vaccines are up to date. Things like yellow fever, polio, and other illnesses that are not currently problematic in the United States are still present elsewhere, so check the recommended vaccination list for the countries you plan to visit.
Travel with a Personal Pharmacy
Immunity-boosting supplements, Emergen-C, cough drops, ibuprofen, and Pepto are all easy things to pack and take with you in your travels. Quality tissues are also a good idea for those pesky sniffles and unexpected bathroom emergencies.
A Cold or the Flu
I know, everyone assumes you have COVID at the first sign of illness. But colds and the flu still make their way around, even now! Thankfully, these have been around so long, you have several good options for fighting them. The best ways to combat the cold or flu on the road are:
Don’t be afraid to cancel or delay your trip. Colds and the flu are highly contagious, even after you start to feel better. Sometimes you get sick while traveling, but if you’re already starting to feel bad before you go, taking your trip isn’t going to make you feel any better.
No, really, I mean stay in that hotel room, Air BnB, VRBO, wherever you’re staying. Self quarantine for a day or so to give yourself time to rest and recover. The general advice on getting over jet lag is to wake up when the locals get up and stay awake until it gets dark, but when you’re sick, lack of sleep will only make you feel worse. Sleep when you can, rest when you need to, and try not to spread your illness!
Alka-seltzer Plus Cold and Flu has been really helpful to me in the past. They have both night time and day time formulas, and you can choose from effervescent tablets or capsules to swallow instead. Mucinex and Tamiflu are over-the-counter medications that you can try at the first signs of your flu. And good old ibuprofen can help with body aches or swollen throat.
If All Else Fails
If none of that works, Google Translate the words for “flu”, “cold,” “sick,” or “medicine”. Write them down and go to the nearest pharmacy to ask for their recommendation.
More here: What to Do if You Have to Quarantine Abroad
This is where that Pepto-bismol I mentioned earlier comes in handy. You might think it’s better to let the sickness run its course and get all of it out of you, but that can cause dehydration, horrendous cramping, and other problems. I’ve had this particular issue a few times, most notably in Cambodia, Morocco, Bali, the Galapagos Islands, and on Kauai, among others. Here’s what to do:
Pepto-bismol not only settles your stomach, it also actually kills the bacteria that’s making you sick. Get rid of the source, and you’ll start feeling better sooner rather than later. Thankfully, you can get this in chewable tablets or capsul form, so they’re easy to travel with, as a pre-emptive strategy.
I know, I know. Food is a major part of experiencing the culture. But go flavor-neutral just for a day or two. You can almost always find plain yogurt, bread (pita, flatbread, loaf), rice, and sometimes oatmeal wherever you are in the world. Whatever will help you keep up your strength and settle your stomach, try that.
If pepto and eating bland don’t work out for you, Google Translate the words for “diarrhea,” “upset stomach,” and “medicine.” Write them down and go to the nearest pharmacy (or ask a travel companion to go for you, if you can’t be away from the bathroom long enough) to ask for their recommendation.
I don’t puke. If I feel the urge, I will it away. But during our 2019 trip to Morocco, for the first time in nearly 10 years, I couldn’t stop it. I totally hurled my guts up in a cab, after thwarting not one, not two, but three urges at the Casablanca airport and inflight from Casablanca to Fes.
I don’t know if it was the couscous, the long travel day from the Sahara Desert to Ouarzazate to Casablanca to Fes, or the stress of our inexplicably delayed flight that was already getting in super late, but I was a goner. It was awful. Steve and I at the same things, went to the same places, and did everything together, but thankfully, he didn’t also get sick. If something similar happens to you, here are some steps to take:
Swipe the Airsick Bag
If you think you might have an episode after you get off a plane, everyone will be glad you took that bag with you. Steve actually had to open mine for me because I couldn’t figure out I needed to rip it open, so thank goodness for him!
Suck on Ice
If you can’t keep down water, suck on crushed ice or small ice cubes. You will be getting hydration, but it’ll be coming in slowly enough that it won’t shock your stomach like drinking water in a normal way.
Get Settled and Stay Settled
If it’s something you ate, give yourself time to get it all out of you and get better. If it’s a virus, don’t take a chance on spreading your misery to others. Rest as much as possible so your body has time to recover. And take Pepto. If you can keep it down, it might help. If you can’t keep it down, at least you tried.
Keep reading: How to Practice Self Care on Travel
If You Need Medical Attention
Aside from throwing my guts up, this was my absolute worst fear. Would it cost more than a plane ticket home? We didn’t have insurance to cover any of the costs, so all expenses were out of pocket. Would they be mad at me for being sick away from home? In the age of COVID, would they have to report me to the government? Would I be allowed to fly home? Will the doctor an I have a miscommunication since I can’t speak the language?
I was definitely sick enough by the middle of our trip to St. Martin that I needed to see a doctor and get an antibiotic prescription to knock out what I had. I’m so glad I did, and I honestly wish I’d done it a day or two earlier. Here’s what to do:
Google Urgent Care in the Area
Unless you need to go to the emergency room, find an urgent care-type of facility near you. A quick Google search will show you where they are, and their hours should be posted as well. Note that your options will be much more limited on Saturdays and Sundays, so if you can get care before the weekend, that is definitely best. This only cost us $70 USD on Sint Maarten, which was a few hundred dollars less than I expected.
Translate Your Symptoms
If your doctor is like mine, he or she will likely speak more correct English than you do! But it’s always beneficial to be prepared, so take a few minutes to put your symptoms into Google Translate, just in case it’s helpful to have them available in both languages.
Pick Up Your Prescriptions
The doctor prescribed four different medications for me, which we were able to pick up at a nearby pharmacy. Be sure to check the labels to see if the information is in English, and if not, ask the pharmacist to go over the appropriate dosage. And don’t forget to write it down! These prescriptions cost about $26 USD, which, again, was several hundred dollars less than I feared!
Want more? Check out my dedicated Health and Wellness Page!
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