What I’ve learned about navigating health care while traveling abroad

No one wants to see the inside of a hospital or a doctor’s office while they’re traveling. No one plans to navigate another country’s medical system while dealing with language barriers. You don’t want to learn that the doctor you saw while passing through London may have overprescribed medication, or that there is a big difference between public and private hospitals while you’re studying abroad in Buenos Aires.

Some people, like me, just happen to be prone to illness or injury — especially while traveling.

Even when I was a kid, my body seemed to time my illnesses with trips. On one of the few “beach” vacations my family ever took, to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I got a head cold. And due to the precautionary lore of the family, I wasn’t allowed to get my head wet while I was sick. Those turquoise pools sparkled in the sun; the ocean waves alluringly roared onto the beach. And I stayed dry on the sand. This was only the beginning of the various illnesses I’ve experienced while traveling.

During my study abroad trip to London, I developed a bladder infection, and a physician prescribed me the same medication that people poisoned by anthrax take. While studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a severe sinus infection forced me to navigate both public and private health care systems as a foreigner in the city. I found myself with an intense rash in Cuba after I had an allergic reaction to my sunscreen, but many common over-the-counter medicines require prescriptions in Cuba. That meant I didn’t have access to antihistamines to treat the rash.

I’ve learned a lot during my travels as the one who always gets sick. For one, now I make sure to pack antihistamines and hydrocortisone with me, regardless of where I’m going. Here are eight more tips for you to consider when you plan your next (or first!) trip abroad. They could help you stay happy and healthy while traveling the globe.


1Do some preliminary research.

Guidebooks for various destinations often talk about the country’s medical system and potential risks. For instance, you might want to find out if the tap water is potable or if there are foods you should avoid. But don’t let your research dissuade you from going somewhere — just use the information to help you stay healthy.

2See a doctor a month before you travel.

Before you depart, you can see your general practitioner or go to a clinic that specializes in travel health at a nearby hospital. The doctor can let you know what vaccines you may need and administer them. They also might be able to tell you about the health care systems of the countries you are visiting. They may prescribe some medications, like antibiotics, just in case you end up needing them on your trip.

3Consider purchasing travel insurance.

There are plans that can provide services from access to physicians by phone to complete medical evacuation if needed.

4Get your prescriptions filled several days before you leave.

If you take certain prescription medications regularly, make sure you are fully stocked up before you leave. If you expect to run out of pills while traveling, you should call your pharmacy; they’ll work with your insurance to provide you the amount of pills you need. Then, on your flight, make sure to carry the essential pills on you instead of putting them in checked baggage.


5Stock up on over-the-counter medications and other supplies.

In addition to filling any prescriptions, you may wish to pick up cold medications, band-aids, etc. I like to stock up on antihistamines, hydrocortisone, and DayQuil. Also, consider bringing sunscreen and bug spray depending on where you are traveling.

6Consider retaining parts of your routine.

Traveling takes us out of our daily lives, but there are aspects of your routine, such as diet and exercise, that your body will thank you for maintaining. For instance, if you exercise regularly at home, you may want to bring your sneakers to use at the hotel gym or to walk around.

7Make sure to let your trusted friends and family know about your itinerary, and check in with them.

This is an important safety measure regardless, just in case something happens while you are abroad — but your friends and family can also serve as resources if you need to contact your doctor or get some complex medication information that can’t be from answered where you are.


8If you get sick or injured, take care of it.

If you’re enduring only a minor illness or injury, you might be able to treat yourself with the medication that you’ve brought with you. However, if you feel your symptoms getting worse, go to a doctor or a hospital. If you’re staying at a hotel, the staff may have suggestions for clinics that cater to tourists. Be advised that some countries have different approaches to health and different medical resources.  So in some some situations, you may be advised to go to a nearby country to access their health care system, or you’ll have to end the trip early to go home.

If you wind up sick or injured during your travels, try not to let it ruin your vacation. Don’t be afraid to try the local cuisine or an adventurous activity. You are traveling to experience a new way of life, so eat and drink delicious things and step out of your comfort zone. Unfortunately, illness and injury can be part of travel. If something becomes serious, then you’ll have to put your health first and reevaluate your trip. But don’t forget that, sometimes, the best stories come from these experiences.

Go forth and explore the world — but don’t forget your hydrocortisone.

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