What to Do If You Get Sick on Travel

Updated June 24, 2020.

It happens to the healthiest of us: we’ve saved up, booked our trip, planned out all the fun things we can do and see, looked at restaurant recommendations and menus, and checked in for our flight! Our trip is just hours away… and then we feel it coming on. We get the aches, the sniffles, the sore throat. It’s awful! 

Or worse: we get to our destination, have fun experiencing the local culture and food, and then… the belly pains, the nausea, and the dreaded “travel belly” start. There’s never a good time to get sick, but getting sick right before or during your travels is perhaps less convenient than basically any other time! So after getting sick on my recent trips to Morocco and Zurich, and amidst the coronavirus from Wuhan causing panic around the world, my friend Shara (as in, @sharalikesarah) suggested I write about what to do when it happens to you! 

Sometimes your travels need to stop for sickness, other times, you may only need to adjust!

General Wisdom***

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.
  • 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).
  • Keep your mouth and nose covered to avoid spreading whatever it is you have.
  • Know your travel insurance terms for trip cancellation or going home early, medical evacuations, and hospital visits.
  • 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).
  • Get your flu shot and make sure all your other vaccines are up to date.
  • Travel with your own pharmacy: Emergen-C, Sambucus, cough drops, ibuprofen, and Pepto. Kleenex are also a good idea for those bathroom emergencies!

***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. 

Read on: Travel and Your Hygiene

A Cold or the Flu

This particular 2019-2020 cold and flu season has been particularly bad. I don’t often get sick—it’s not uncommon for me to make it through a whole cold and flu season unscathed, even with all my travels! But this season I’ve already been sick twice, and even my husband got the crud, and he gets sick less often than I do! But this is the one that got us on our recent trip to Zurich.

The best ways to fight the cold or flu on the road are:

  • Stay home. Don’t be afraid to cancel or delay your trip. Colds and the flu are highly contagious, even after you start to feel better. 
  • Stay in. No, really, I mean stay in that hotel room, Air BnB, VRBO, wherever you’re staying, stay in for a day or so to give yourself time to 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. 
  • Good old ibuprofen can help with body aches or swollen throat. 
  • If none of that works, Google Translate the words for “flu”, “cold” or “sick”, and “medicine”. Write them down and go to the nearest pharmacy to ask for their recommendation. 
Beautiful memories can still be made… even if the trip is not exactly what you planned!

Cough or Sore Throat

Don’t you hate that cough that just won’t go away. People look at you like you’re carrying the plague! And that sore throat is brutal. Both can be painful, and both tend to linger and keep you awake at night, which does nothing for that rest thing I mentioned earlier. 

Here are my preferred cough and sore throat remedies:

  • Warm beverages: hot tea, Emergen-C, Alka-seltzer, etc. Whatever is going to keep your throat warm and soothed. And if you can get honey, even better!
  • Ricola. Ironically, we could only find one kind of Ricola in Zurich! The extra strength menthol Ricola work best for me, but next time I’ll bring some with me, and I recommend you do, too!
  • Ibuprofen. When my throat is sore and swollen, it’s hard to swallow, much less talk or eat or sleep, and ibuprofen definitely helped with that on this last trip! 
  • If you need something stronger, Google Translate the words for “sore throat”, “cough”, and “medicine”. Write them down and go to the nearest pharmacy to ask for their recommendation. 
Stay bundled so your body can use its energy to heal itself rather than warm itself!


This is where that Pepto-bismol comes in handy. Pepto not only settles your stomach, it also actually kills the bacteria that’s making you sick. 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:

  • Trust me, take the Pepto as directed! 
  • Eat bland for a day or two: yogurt, bread, maybe some oatmeal. 
  • If pepto doesn’t work out for you, Google Translate the words for “diarrhea”, “upset stomach”, and “medicine”. Write them down and go to the nearest pharmacy to ask for their recommendation. 
If you love the great outdoors but experience incredible diarrhea, just ask yourself: are you prepared to “go” in the woods for this view? (It’s Waimea Canyon on Kauai. It was worth “going” in the woods!)

Upset Stomach 

I don’t puke. If I feel the urge, I will it away. But last year in 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 to Fes. I don’t know if it was the couscous, the long travel day from the Desert to Ouarzazate to Casablanca to Fes’s, or the stress of our inexplicably delayed flight that was already getting in super late, but I was a goner. It was awful. 

But 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 the plane. (Steve had to open it for me because I couldn’t figure out I needed to rip it open, so thank goodness for him!)
  • If you can’t keep down water, suck on crushed ice; you will be getting hydration, but slowly enough that it won’t shock your stomach like drinking water in a normal way might do if your stomach is upset.
  • 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. 
  • Take Pepto. If you can keep it down, it might help. If you can’t keep it down, at least you tried. 
Fes could have been a total bust if I’d let my upset stomach get the best of me. Luckily, Riad Mazar Fes was the perfect place to recover, and the staff were incredibly kind and understanding!

Want more? Check out How to Travel Well and Stay Well!

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Published by quickwhittravel

Hey there! I am an avid traveller and adventurer, and you're always welcome to join me! The things I love most are God, my husband Steve, and seeing new places! My favorite places include Sydney, Australia; Ise City, Japan; and Bergen, Norway--but there's always room for more favorite places!

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