One of my most common anxiety triggers is hands-down my health. As a registered hypochondriac, I’m naturally convinced that I’m sick most of the time, whether I’m on a hike in Vietnam or watching Netflix in bed. As you would expect, this can often make the travel planning process rather anxiety-provoking.
What if I get sick while I’m abroad?
Will I have access to modern medicine?
What if I can’t communicate my problem in another language?
How would I even pay for healthcare in another country?
No doubt these are all valid questions, but my anxious mind has a tendency to catastrophize -- to make it seem like an inevitability that I’ll get sick while I’m away, when in reality, it rarely ever happens. Most of the health issues I worry about follow the same pattern -- realistic and justifiable concerns, blown out of proportion. So for this post, I’d like to break down some of the most common health concerns for travelers, and show you that even on the rare occasion that disaster strikes, you have the options and resources to get better without reason to panic.
1. Food Poisoning
Okay, of all the health concerns, this is far and away the most common and most likely to actually happen...and I’m not going to sugarcoat it: food poisoning sucks. There are few things worse than being packed on a hot bus when all you need to do is vomit and diarrhea at the same time.
Food poisoning can strike at any time for any number of reasons, but it most commonly happens because you ate something rotten, improperly cooked or something that simply didn’t agree with your stomach. Because it can often be difficult to trace the sickness back to the source, it can be quite difficult to avoid. My advice is simply to do your best to distinguish what foods seem suspicious and what don’t (check out my detailed checklist here.)
There’s unfortunately no formula for this. Avoiding street meat isn’t a guarantee (my worst food poisoning experience came from a highly recommended cooking school & restaurant) and certain parts of the world have cuisines that are just naturally unfamiliar to our digestive systems (you’re more likely to get food poisoning in India or Thailand than in Italy or Argentina, for example).
What I would recommend is to not let this fear dictate the entirety of your eating habits. Food poisoning is a bit of an inevitability when you travel. It may happen or it may not, but if you just prepare yourself mentally for the possibility of it, you’ll be able to handle it better if it strikes. Don’t let the fear of a day or two on the toilet stop you from trying local food and delicacies, because cuisine is the backbone of a countries culture, and that’s - after all - a big part of why you’re traveling.
Just remember to pack extra toilet paper. I’m serious. That stuff is white gold and it will come in handy.
If you want more information on food safety, and how to reduce your chances of getting sick from food, check out my checklist on Jonesaroundtheworld here.
2. Drinking Water
Along the same lines as food poisoning, drinking water is another health concern with disastrous consequences if not properly handled. I got a stomach infection in Bolivia from drinking the water, and it took a few days and some antibiotics to clear it up.
The notion of unclean drinking water stems from the idea that many countries have very different purification systems than we’re used to in our westernized countries, and therefore, our bodies react differently to the drinking water in, say Guatemala, than they do to water here in the US. In some regions, even the locals will exclusively drink water out of bottles rather than from the tap for safety reasons. This obviously doesn’t apply to every country -- European and other westernized countries rarely have an issue with drinking water, and even many countries I’ve been to have had little pockets of places where the tap water was safe to drink.
My advice? Go with bottled water unless told otherwise. It’s usually quite cheap and just good to have on hand regardless. You can get bottled water from your hostel, convenience stores, grocery stores or even food stands. I generally buy a 1L water bottle that lasts me a few days, and some hostels even have free filtered water bottle refills. Getting sick from the drinking water is a totally avoidable issue, so if you can save yourself a few days of stomach pain, why not just play it safe?
3. Raw Produce
One of my absolute favorite things to do while traveling is to try the local fruit. It’s always totally different from anything I can get at home, and is undeniably a staple of the local cuisine. However, someone once brought up the issue of raw produce, and I was surprised that it never crossed my mind. When your food is cooked, all the germs and bad stuff are killed off, making it perfectly safe to eat. But what happens if you get some raw fruits and veggies with your meal at a restaurant in a country where the water purification system is questionable? As we just discussed, unfiltered water could be a recipe for disaster. I’ve met many travelers who were militant in their avoiding raw produce, saying that it’s never worth stomach ache you could get as a result of consuming it.
However, in my experience, this has never really been a problem. I’ve eaten many raw fruits and veggies abroad, none of which have gotten me sick. I think that generally restaurants and local vendors know that tourists are wary of tap water and will often wash their fruits and veggies with bottled or filtered water so that they don’t lose business. And it can never hurt to learn the phrase, “is this washed with filtered water?” in the local language for a little extra peace of mind.
Long story short: if you’re wary about eating raw produce, that’s totally up to you and I relate to the concern, but I haven’t personally ever had an issue with it.
4. Malaria, Dengue & Other Mosquito-Borne Illnesses
Depending on where you go, this could be a huge concern or of no concern, but most of my trips have taken me to places where mosquitoes, and mosquito-borne illnesses ran rampant. Tropical destinations, especially jungles and swamps, are riddled with bugs, and therefore, often do contain diseases like Malaria, Dengue, Zika, and West Nile Virus. Obviously, knowing this consistently convinces me that I’ll get Malaria and die in a jungle hospital, but in reality, I’ve never had any issues with mosquitoes.
Proper preparation and research are key to handling muggy destinations. Consult a doctor and/or the internet to find out what diseases to watch out for prior to your trip, and get the right kind of vaccines or medications ahead of time. Malaria pills are often easily prescribed, and vaccines for West Nile or Yellow Fever are cheap and effective. A quick search of the CDC website (Center for Disease Control) should tell you everything you need to know and then some, but don’t get scared or discouraged from the onslaught of fearmonger-y info! Proper preventative medication will totally tamp down those fears real quick.
Also, it goes without saying that bug spray is absolutely essential on most trips, but doubly for tropical ones. Pack yourself a bottle (preferably 3oz or less to fit in your carry-on) before you leave for your trip, and be ready to buy more if need be. I’ve used 100 Repel from Amazon on every one of my trips, and while I can’t guarantee that the 100% DEET in it isn’t shaving years off my life, I have been to the Amazon, Laos and Guatemala and never come home with Malaria or even many bug bites.
5. Getting Sick
Sometimes there’s no way around it, and whether it’s a cold, a stomach infection, or a simple case of traveler's diarrhea, you get sick. Don’t panic. I always assumed that I’d be on my own if I got sick in another country, with no lifeline to modern medicine or a doctor that speaks english, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
If you feel sick enough to see a doctor, speak first to the information desk at your hostel. They have no doubt had guests who’ve gotten sick, and therefore know exactly where to send you to get the help you need. They know you probably don’t speak the language and require an English speaking doctor, and can more than likely set you up with one.
Even so, it’s always a good idea to download the Google Translate App and have the local language downloaded onto your phone, so in the event you need to translate your symptoms to a doctor, you have it readily available. I can’t stress enough how much less of a panic this is than it seems. You will rarely ever be entirely on your own with no medicine available to you.
Also, as an added precaution, I always bring with me a few over-the-counter medicines to help with the normal sorts of ailments.
Imodium - perfect for a case of traveler’s diarrhea or some other lower digestive issue.
Pepto Bismol - perfect for stomach aches and nausea.
Advil, Aleve, Tylenol, etc. - excellent for headaches, altitude sickness & inflammation.
Gravol/Dramamine - super handy for motion sickness and/or dizziness.
Melatonin - great for insomnia or sleeplessness.
6. Travelers Insurance
Travelers insurance is that one sort of precaution that everyone seems to neglect prior to a trip. Depending on where you go and how likely it is you’ll need a doctor, travelers insurance can be a huge money saver. You don’t want to see a doctor abroad and get stuck with a medical bill that’s more expensive than your entire trip, but you also don’t want to shell out a ton of money for insurance that you may very likely not need.
My advice? Better safe than sorry. I’ve never personally had to use my travelers insurance before, but it was a huge comfort to know that I had it in the event that I needed it. For a reasonably low fee, I not only knew that my medical bills were covered, but that I was covered in the event of cancelled flights and/or natural disasters. Most insurances cover a wide range of unpredictable situations, and they can really act as a huge weight lifted off an anxious mind, so if you want to learn more, check out what the internet has to offer. I personally have always used WorldNomads insurance, and never had any complaints.
Health concerns can no doubt be huge deterrents for people on the fence about travel, and understandably so. But with the proper research and know-how from people who’ve already been through it, they don't have to be scary or intimidating at all. You’ll rarely be fully alone on a trip to begin with, but even if you find yourself sick in another country, proper research & packing can make you fully prepared to tackle your illness head on and get back on track to enjoying your trip.