Ten travel lessons I’ve learned from getting sick all over the world.
Sometimes, the travel bug leads to other kinds of “bugs”: illness, injury, and even hospitalization. I’ve spent my fair share of time getting medical treatment all around the world, and whether faced with a non-English speaking healthcare team or long-distance bus ride to the nearest hospital, I’ve figured out how to navigate not only the world, but the world’s healthcare systems.
There’s nothing worse than being sick and alone in a foreign country where few people speak your language—not even the pharmacist. But just a few weeks into a gap year I spent traveling through Asia and Europe, I found myself in Tashkent, Uzbekistan—so congested I could barely hear and coughing so much I couldn’t sleep. After Uzbek, the most popular language there was Russian, neither of which I speak—so I headed to the U.S. Embassy’s recommended clinic. A bronchitis diagnosis and one antibiotic prescription later, I returned to my itinerary, taking in Uzbekistan’s ancient mosques and spice markets.
Lesson Learned: In dire circumstances, you can ask the or hospital—they have a list, usually including lists of specialists like eye doctors or OB/GYNs.
At the Kazakh-Chinese border crossing, I was eight hours into a 24-hour bus ride from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Urumqi, China. I was also eight hours into what I thought was a serious stomach bug. At passport control, I blacked out completely: a combination of dehydration, a weakened immune system, and a new bacteria that had found its way into my system presumably via the poorly refrigerated food I’d been eating for weeks. Though the tiny clinic by the border offered me fluids and a place to lie down, it wasn’t long before an ambulance took me back to a major city.
Lesson Learned: If you’re already feeling sick, get to a city with a hospital sooner rather than later.
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As foreign hospital experiences go, Almaty’s stands out as a shining example of… a very shiny hospital. Compared to the tiny clinic I first visited near the border with China, every inch of this place was spotless: the starched sheets, sparkling sink handles, and freshly scrubbed floor. Unfortunately, not a single doctor or nurse spoke English—but by emailing test results with a Russian-American doctor back home, I was able to get treatment for my gastro symptoms (though no diagnosis at the time). A weekend of easy to digest broth and applesauce, plus an IV pumped full of anti-nausea medication, left me healed enough to spend a few nights in a hotel, walking around Almaty’s sprawling parks blanketed in freshly fallen red and orange leaves to regain my strength.
Lesson Learned: If you’re in a pinch, try getting a multilingual doctor back home to translate test results.
Tel Aviv, Israel
Just north of Tel Aviv is Herzliya, lined by white sand beaches and peppered with trendy restaurants. It’s also home to the Herzliya Medical Center. Post-Kazakh hospitalization and still suffering similar symptoms, I decided to get checked out by a doctor who spoke my language—a handwritten list of symptoms in hand, so I wouldn’t forget anything. After a wide-ranging series of tests I sat in a waiting room with a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean. I wasn’t diagnosed that day—in fact, I wouldn’t be for an entire year. The eventual diagnosis? The bacteria that causes plague. Though I didn’t get the bubos typical of the illness, the bacteria created major issues with my gastrointestinal and immune systems, making me progressively sicker for months. Finally, a doctor decided to test me for “things nobody has, but let’s just rule them out.” I tested positive for the Yersinia, and was able to treat it with a simple course of medication.
Lesson Learned: Get a second, third, and fourth opinion—as long as it takes to figure out what’s really wrong.
After four months backpacking in Central Asia and Israel—meaning four months without Starbucks—I landed in Bangkok and picked up the first iced mocha I could find. But I ignored the cardinal rule of food hygiene while traveling: if you can’t drink the water, don’t consume drinks with ice in them. Big mistake. After a day spent crouched over the toilet, I had reached my limit, so I went to a hospital to get some fluids. I was so out of it that I thought the clinic’s sign read “Adventure” Hospital—but on my way out, fully rehydrated, I looked up at the sign again—only to see that it actually spelled out “Adventist” Hospital. Though I kept all the documentation of my visit to file an insurance claim, the total bill turned out to be less than $7.
Lesson Learned: If you can’t drink the water, watch out for ice.
Book a Hotel
Visiting friends in Australia once, I noticed that my right fingers and wrist were going numb and tingly throughout the day. I woke up each morning ready to explore Melbourne’s street art scene, drive the Great Ocean Road, and feed quokkas and kangaroos, but my arm stayed asleep long into the day. After a day of strange, shooting pain up and down my wrist and triceps, I went to a neurologist out in the suburbs of Melbourne, and the nerve conductivity test I took there showed inflammation through the ulnar nerve in my arm. Diagnosed with cubital tunnel syndrome, I headed back to America for long-term physical and occupational therapy, but it wasn’t long before I was back on the road again.
Lesson Learned: Sometimes, going home really is the best bet.
An elephant safari in India is always a good idea—that is, until your jeep hits a pothole so steep that your head bangs against the metal frame. Not so great. While dizzy, my friends took me to a small clinic near the elephant park. There doctors told me that luckily, I hadn’t done any serious damage—no concussion, just some superficial swelling. I slept the rest of the day and was ready to head out for more wildlife watching in a jiffy.
Lesson Learned: Take safety precautions everywhere, but especially in places where a little medical mishap will be a major inconvenience.
After years of gastrointestinal issues (looking at you, plague), by the time I took a quick trip to Catalonia with friends I was well-versed in heartburn and acid reflux. But after a night of rich paella in a cobblestoned square off La Rambla, I woke up at 2am with a harsh, searing pain in my chest—so bad that I woke up a friend and talked about going to a hospital despite the hour. After waiting it out, the pain lessened enough for me to fall back asleep. The next day I explained my lengthy history of gastrointestinal issues to a pharmacist, who confirmed that this was indeed just a severe case of heartburn. A few Rennie’s pills later, I was back to paella—a smaller portion, though, just in case.
Lesson Learned: In a lot of places, pharmacists can help diagnose minor ailments and injuries. When in doubt, start by seeking treatment at a pharmacy.
Staying in hostels can be a lot of fun, but they’re not just centers for a social life abroad; they’re petri dishes for all the bacteria and illnesses each traveler carries. During a weekend stay at a hostel on England’s southern coast, I came down with a fever and stabbing stomach ache. I headed straight for a free clinic, saw one of the cheeriest nurses I’ve ever encountered, and was prescribed a medication to give my system a clean slate. Within a couple of days I was back hiking along the magnificent Seven Sisters chalk cliffs a quick bus ride out of town.
Lesson Learned: Roughing it can be fun, but take extra care of your health when traveling in less than hygienic circumstances.
One afternoon during a month-long stint in the City of Lights, I noticed a strange, near-black bruise expanding across my inner wrist. Never one to take chances with my health, I grabbed a French-speaking friend and headed to a hospital across town. Luckily, it turned out to be a small broken blood vessel run amok. The doc handed me a topical cream and anti-coagulants—just in case—and I was back to baguettes and brie in no time.
Lesson Learned: Whenever possible, find a translator.