Travel Tips

Travel Tips: Illness Abroad

Travel Tips: Illness Abroad

In light of the global coronavirus panic I thought it would be a good idea to write a blog post about simple things we can do while traveling to stay healthy, or recover from illness. I have never been really sick while traveling (knock on wood) but Will has while we were in Italy. Like any travel tips posts, each person, each trip, and each case is different; you know your body, go with your gut.

Travel Medical Insurance

Our medical insurance is a piece of crap, they hardly cover things in the US let alone abroad. I have never gotten travel medical insurance before my Oxford summer program (it was require), but once I saw how cheap it was ($11 for 3 weeks) I’m reconsidering my stance. Like I said before, I have never gotten sick while abroad but if I ever had a serious medical issue I would be financially screwed. I’m not here to sell you medical insurance, I’m not even going to link to the one I purchased, but if you have a condition that puts you more at risk (i.e. diabetes, pregnancy, heart condition, etc.) the travel medical insurance might just be worth it, at least for the peace of mind.

Preventive Packing

Here is a list of the things I *always* back for a trip, whether foreign or domestic:

  1. Band-aids
  2. Vitamins
  3. Ibuprofen
  4. Allergy Medicine
  5. Tea Packets
  6. Tissues
  7. Wipes
  8. if going on a boat/bus…Motion Sick Medicine

It’s not an extensive list and if we had kids I’m sure the list would expand but so far it’s been good to cover our bases. I normally take a regular daily vitamin, but I want to be sure I am keeping my immune system healthy while traveling so I am extra careful to step those up a little while traveling. I’ve only actually needed the Band-aids once while hiking in Joshua Tree National Park where I fell down and guess what the one thing I left at home that day was? yup…band-aids.

Although you wouldn’t necessarily think of tea = medicine. I have found that many littles ails, such as an upset tummy or a little stuffy nose, can be warded off with a cozy cup of tea. Green tea with lemon or ginger is my favorite for traveling.

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.

— C.S. Lewis

We are lucky that one of the parents on the spring break trip is also an ER doctor, so that is of great comfort just in case anyone were to get sick. And now that the coronavirus has made its global presence heard I am adding a few things to my personal packing list for my upcoming 2020 trips:

  1. Thermometer
  2. Hand sanitizer
  3. Cough Drops
  4. Flu Medicine

Eating Abroad

Depending on the region you travel to there may be foods Americans should not eat. This is not because other countries are backwards and dirty, it’s just because our stomachs are not equipped to handle different processes of cleaning and handling of foods. Make sure to be extra careful with things like uncooked vegetables/salads, tap water, and roadside food in countries where there is a food-borne illness warning. I for one have a stomach of steel but I seriously tested my limits when drinking roadside “cocoa water” in the Yucatan, Mexico. I was halfway through the XL drink when I realized I probably just made a grave mistake. Luckily, I only had a minor upset stomach for 2 days and that was it but that could have been really bad.

Eat healthy. I know it can be tempting to eat pastries at every turn while in France but that is not going to help you stay healthy. Moderation is key. We have a friend that ended up getting gout from eating too much jamón and drinking too much wine while in Spain. Balance meals of indulgence with fruits and vegetables.

Read more: Foods of Belgium & the Dutch


HYDRATE, HYDRATE, HYDRATE!!! I’m not the best with this but I truly feel that adequate water is the key to staving off most illnesses. Sometimes it can be hard when traveling because you’re out of routine and sometimes stuck in places without easy access to water. To combat being dehydrated I carry a collapsible water bottle with me at all times and refill it whenever convenient. I like the collapsible one because it doesn’t take up a ton of space in my bag and is easy to pack. I also make sure to always order water when eating a meal, including breakfast, even if I have to pay for it. Most people walk around in a state of constant dehydration and that makes us more susceptible to getting sick.

Personal Hygiene

While abroad I have seriously been in some nasty bathrooms, hostels, trains, etc. I can’t necessarily control that, but I can control my personal hygiene. I always carry tissues with me where ever I go! I learned my lesson while studying abroad in Italy in college that toilet paper is not a guarantee. I vividly remember this one super gross train station bathroom with a hole in the ground and no toilet paper; no amount of “shaking it off” was going to help in that situation. From that moment on I always have tissues and wipes on me whenever traveling. This isn’t necessarily a foreign issue, I have also been in absolutely horrid gas station bathrooms in America – when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go!

*Note: see tip above why drinking less water to avoid peeing in public places is a bad idea!

I also always check the sheets of any hotel bed I stay in for signs of cleanliness, especially bed bugs. My family got infected one trip and, trust me, you do not want to go down that road. Now, I am not someone who stays in fancy hotels so I don’t expect top dollar from my accommodations but clean sheets/towels and no bed bugs are definitely on my list of must haves!

Read more: Travel Tips: Staying in a Monastery vs a Hostel

US State Department

The U.S. State Department has an extensive travel site where you can see country advisories/warnings and read about health concerns. It’s always a smart idea to check out their website a few days before traveling to see if anything has been updated.

While you are there, it’s is also a good idea to sign up for the STEP Program (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program). That way the State Department knows you are in a foreign country in case something like a terrorist attack, outbreak, or other natural disaster happens. You can’t predict what can and will happen but you can set yourself up to be prepared if something does.

Read more: My Favorite Travel Apps

Pack Medicine

I am currently on a host of medicines to get rid of my months-long allergy coughing so you bet that making sure I properly pack medicines is top of my list! If you are someone with a chronic condition you have to make sure to refill prescriptions a few days before heading out on your trip, pack medicine with the doctor information on them just in case you are searched in the airport, and, if your condition is especially life threatening, translate basic medical information in the language of your destination. No one wants to be in the hospital unable to speak to their physicians about basic needs.

Additionally, make sure your medicines are with you in your personal bag, easy to access, during the flight. You definitely do not want them in a checked bag in case you and your bag get separated (been there!).

If You Do Get Sick

The best thing to do is get some rest immediately! This is part of the reason I do not jam pack our schedule every day of a trip. I know it’s tempting to want to “see it all” and feel like you wasted your money getting sick while abroad, but it’s worth it in the end to recover faster. The moment Will started feeling sick on our trip to Italy I adjusted our schedule to give him time to nap in the afternoon (while I wandered solo) and I immediately went to a pharmacy and got him medicine. He didn’t want to stay home all day while we were in Siena, understandable, but we compromised by waking up an hour later and having him going to bed earlier so he can rest, drinking tea and juice for breakfast then going out to explore during the morning at a leisurely pace. After lunch I sent him back to our apartment to take a nap and then in the late afternoon we got to stroll the town before dinner & an early bedtime. It wasn’t ideal but this way we could still enjoy our time and he could recover from the cold.

Now, if your illness is much worse than that, completely staying home a day or two may be wise. You know your body – listen to it. And of course, if it is a medical emergency go to the hospital!

Prevention is key with health while traveling! You cannot prepare for the unexpected but you can be ready for it if it comes!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *