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Sick while traveling? Here’s how to take care of yourself


Consider this your crash course in handling even the worst illnesses on the road.

woman sleeping

Whether you’re traveling for fun or for work, no one wants to get sick while away from home. But even if you scrub every nearby surface with hand sanitizer wipes, chug your body weight in water to stay hydrated, and pack your vitamins, the crowds, jet lag, and less-than-nutritious meals you experience while traveling can keep your immune system from being at its best.

Prevention is important, but so is knowing what to do when the inevitable happens. Instead of letting a bug ruin your entire trip, prep yourself ahead of time. Pack any OTC medicines you can to be safe (see more below), and if you’re traveling out of state, look up how your health insurance benefits may change, especially if you’re leaving the country. Knowing how to treat these common ailments on the road can help you nip any illnesses in the bud so you can get healthier faster and better enjoy wherever you are.

A cold or cough: Colds are caused by viruses, which means they don’t respond to antibiotics. The good news: They tend to get better on their own in three to four days. The bad news: The symptoms—fever, headache, sore muscles, fatigue, sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, and cough—are really annoying, especially when you’re in transit. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help with fever and muscle aches (and are usually small enough to pack in your carry on), while over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medicines can ease nasal and cough symptoms, and throat lozenges or sprays soothe sore throats. Besides taking meds, drink lots of water and prioritize sleep, even if it means missing out on some of the sights. If things don’t get better in seven to 10 days, call a doc.

The flu: In most cases, the flu is an illness you just need to ride out. The symptoms—runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, fever—may seem like a cold, but tend to come on faster and resolve themselves within five to seven days. But if you’re in a high risk group (i.e. older adults, young children, people with chronic illnesses or other respiratory complications), see an M.D., who may prescribe you an antiviral medication. Otherwise, you should definitely stay put in your hotel or house rental until your fever breaks, rest and drink plenty of liquids, and try OTC medicines to ease symptoms.

A stomach bug: There’s no quick way to get rid of viral gastroenteritis, which, in most cases, doesn’t require medical treatment. Because it’s a virus, antibiotics won’t help. The most important thing to do is prevent dehydration (from vomiting or diarrhea) by replacing lost fluids and electrolytes. You can also take an OTC antidiarrheal medication. These pills are usually small, so they’re easy to pack for your trip.

A sore throat: A sore throat can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection. If caused by a virus, it will likely clear up on its own in a few days. If your sore throat isn’t going away, it may be due to a bacterial infection and require antibiotics. In the meantime, OTC medicines can help ease symptoms, as can drinking lots of fluids, including warm broths or teas; eating cold treats like popsicles; gargling with salt water; and sucking on lozenges (another easy-to-pack item) or hard candy.

If you’re not getting better or you don’t know where to find the meds you need: Part of the extra pain of getting sick while traveling—you know, besides the fact that you’re wasting hard-earned vacation days—is figuring out how to treat yourself when you can’t visit your own doctor or a familiar pharmacy. If you’re in or near a city in the United States, a quick map search should show you an urgent care clinic nearby, as well as familiar pharmacy chains. If you need to find a clinic outside the U.S., the International Society of Travel Medicine’s Global Travel Clinic Directory lists clinics in countries all over the world based on what type of care they provide and what languages their doctors speak. If you’re in a hotel, they should be able to get a doctor to you who speaks English and can help you get medicines you require. You can also call the U.S. embassy in any country for hospital and health care provider recommendation.