Getting sick when you’re travelling

I just got back from a week in Singapore and Vietnam.  As excited as I was for my first work trip to Asia since moving down under, I wasn’t prepared for the bout of illness that came with it.  A sore throat grew into a nasty fever, the fever left me with a terrible cold and the cold gave way to one of those coughs that you wouldnt want to be caught dead with in public.  I spent a couple of days cooped up in the hotel room, watching daytime soaps and CNN but mostly I slept and ate pho.  Getting sick is never fun.  Getting sick in a foreign country can be downright scary.

The last time I got really sick on a trip was in 2009. I had quit my job in finance and was spending the summer travelling around South America with two of my future b-school classmates. After a month of schlepping though hostels, we were splurging on the Sheraton in Iguazu for our last stop. We’d started to feel under the weather in Buenos Aires and were looking forward to some R&R in more comfortable digs.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before my tiredness evolved into a raging fever. I decided to skip out of the day’s plans and stay in bed. I barely had the energy to get out of bed and on the one occasion that I did, I blacked out. When I came to, I was sitting on the cold floor and realised to my relief that I hadn’t hit anything hard. I sat there a few more minutes, before I could summon the strength to get up and dial the front desk.

Hours later, a nurse showed up.  He was the only qualified “medic” in the area and his professional advice was to “drink lots of fluids, take paracetemol and rest”.  No meds, no antibiotics, nothing.  I don’t think there was a pharmacy for miles.

The other girls returned and the three of us grappled with our symptoms while staring at the news in our hotel room. It soon dawned on us that this was no ordinary bug: this was sweeping the world, this was H1N1.

Being taken out by H1N1 in a remote town, in Argentina, a few weeks before business school was scary. We worried that we wouldn’t be well enough to travel back to the States or, worse still, be quarantined.  The only thing I felt grateful for was that we were in a hotel room rather than on one of the gruelling hikes we’d been ploughing through weeks earlier.

48 hours later, we managed to get on a flight home. In retrospect wasn’t the best thing for containing the disease but was the best thing for getting us on the path to recovery. It took another week of lying around doing nothing before I felt better. I lost 5 lbs in about 10 days.

A few lessons from dealing with sickness abroad:

  • Carry a first aid kit: Duh! Throw some throat lozenges in there, make sure you have some advil / paracetamol / panadol, some sort of tums, bandaids, maybe some immodium, some neosporin “the basics”.  As obvious  as this is, how many people actually travel with a first aid kit? When in a group, there’s always someone miraculously carrying everything you need; when you’re travelling alone, you have to have your own back. Getting sick isn’t the first thing we think of when we’re going on vacation or on a business trip.  I now leave a ziplock of basic meds in my standard bags.
  • Medicate: Step 2 from above: use your meds (wisely).  If you’ve forgotten your first aid kit and you’re somewhere reasonably “foreign” e.g. you don’t speak the language or you’re in a developing country with unfamiliar medical facilities, it can be very tempting to just lay in bed and hope that whatever you have will pass. Don’t! Symptomatic care is valid so take what you need to give yourself some respite. Leverage the hotel: oftentimes they’ll have basic meds on hand or can send someone to pick up what you need. Worst case, they can direct you to a nearby pharmacy and write down what you need.
  • Know when to escalate: a lot of people and a lot of blogs will recommend that you head to a medical center at the first signs of illness when travelling. The thing is, oftentimes, there IS no nearby medical center. Other times, you already know exactly what you have (“a cold”, “food poisoning”) and you can handle it with OTC drugs. Or sometimes, you’re alone, don’t speak the language and are just too sick to go and sit in a waiting room for hours on end. So, what do you do?  If you’re in a country that still does house calls, ask your hotel if they can help arrange one.  If not, see if someone from their staff will accompany you to a clinic and act as a translator.  If you’ve been injured, had an unrelenting fever for more than 24 hours or if your symptoms are getting worse, you should seek medical attention.  It’s worth summoning the energy and effort to trek out to a hospital.
  • Tea, juice, water, soup: stock up on it, raid the mini bar, order it off room service, do whatever it takes to get those liquids into you. Hydration is key.
  • Keep the phone close: Keep your cellphone charged and the hotel phone handy. Know your emergency numbers.
  • Turn off the AC: I hate air conditioners. I’m convinced my latest illness was caused by germs circulated by the hotel AC.  Having it on even briefly would exacerbate my symptoms in seconds. I went cold turkey sans AC in 30C Saigon for two full days and I think it expedited my recovery.
  • Get some air: Keep the room well ventilated or, if you feel up to it, go for a short walk, fresh air does wonders.
  • Conserve energy: if you’re feeling weak, running a fever or otherwise having trouble moving, stay put! Make the most of your hotel amenities: use room service, ask for extra pillows / blankets, rent a stack of movies.  Extend your stay or do whatever’s necessary to avoid the additional strain of travelling until you’re recovered.

Stay healthy! x

Note: This is based on my personal experience and is in no way intended to replace medical advice. If in doubt, you should seek the advice of a medical professional.  

One response

  1. A very well described and useful post. Please read it if you are traveling- carry your medical kit with you.
    I have also found that Murphy’s Law often comes into play when we are traveling- “If you don’t have it you are sure to end up needing it” !

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