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Ask the Experts: What to Do When You're Sick Abroad

Ask the Experts: What to Do When You're Sick Abroad

Ask the Experts: What to Do When You're Sick Abroad

Some expert advice on how to handle illness or injury in a faraway place

Imagine you’re traveling far from home, somewhere you don’t speak the local language and you fall ill. What do you do? We asked some colleagues for their advice on this worst-case scenario:

Meg Ten Eyck, a lesbian travel blogger for Dopes On The Road was on an extended stay in South Korea and fell ill with a urinary tract infection, tells us:

“I knew the doctor was going to ask me for my sexual history, [and I was] in a country that is far from accepting of LGBT people,” Meg recalls. “I ended up finding an LGBT-friendly Facebook group where I asked for a Korean translator and a recommendation for an LGBT-affirming doctor. Fortunately, it ended up working out well for me and a good Samaritan ended up being on the phone to translate for me during my appointment.”

Katherine Harmon, who is on the Health Intelligence team at iJet International, a company that provides risk-management solutions for multinational corporations and government agencies to keep employees safe while traveling, suggests:

  • Travelers should have “travel health insurance” which will not only provide payment for medical services, but also provide a number to a call center that will recommend a local clinic or hospital that they can assure is capable and qualified to meet their needs.
  •  If traveling alone, individuals should advocate for their health care. If traveling with a companion, that person should come with them to help assert their needs. Individuals should not be afraid to speak up if you have questions or think a different course of action may be warranted.
  • Once a visit to a foreign medical doctor or hospital is complete and you are back in your hotel, be sure to touch base with your family doctor. Let them know EXACTLY what the diagnosis is, what was done for you, and what you were told to do (course of action/treatment). They may have input or further instruction for you.
  • Make SURE you understand everything!! Ask for an interpreter if you do not understand the language. There are medical language lines and apps that can help. It’s hard enough when you don’t understand basic language phrases, but add in technical medical jargon and it becomes even more complicated.
  • ALWAYS be certain to carry a written medical summary of any conditions, medications, and allergies you may have and present this to the medical providers prior to treatment. Some therapies, prescriptions, etc. do not mix well with one another and they need to know this. Patients often forget to mention things when they are nervous or ill and the information could be critical.
  • Be able to relay to the doctor what you ate or did in the past 48 hours. Try to instill that although it may not seem relevant to them, it was new to you. Sometimes they need to be reminded that even though they eat the local fish and produce all the time, it is new food to you.

Phil Sylvester, a travel safety expert with World Nomads, an insurance company that caters to independent travelers, recommends:

  • Don’t delay getting medical attention. That mild scrape you got coming off your bike can get infected if you don’t care for it.
  • Listen to your body. If your cold has taken a turn for the worse, stay hydrated, eat well and take a day or two off to recover instead of attempting a 12-hour bus trip.
  • Rely on your travel insurance provider – they are experts in knowing who and where to go to for the best medical care.

Of course, prevention is the...well, you know the rest. Dr. William Brady, MD, Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Virginia and Medical Director for travel insurer Allianz Global Assistance USA, offers this advice before you leave:

  • Consider your medical history prior to travel; speak with your doctor and seek advice.  Certain patients with significant, long-term illness likely should not travel to isolated areas of the world where advance medical care is not available. 
  • Request guidance from your doctor.  If you have recently undergone a procedure or experienced an illness, travel and related stresses may not be appropriate for you at that time.  Rather a delay or postponement might be more appropriate.  Finding oneself in a foreign land with an unfamiliar medical system if a recurrent problem should arise is very inconvenient and can be medically dangerous.  Your travel insurance specialist is the most appropriate means of securing medical care while abroad. 
  • Are you medically able to fly in a commercial aircraft?  The cabin of a commercial aircraft is not pressured to sea-level; rather, pressures at cruising altitudes within the cabin range from that equivalent to a 6,000-8,000 foot elevation.  In other words, a very high altitude.  Thus, those patients with chronic respiratory (i.e., breathing) problems may not be the most appropriate candidates for air travel. 
  • If you have a chronic medical condition and require the use of specific devices and / or medications, make sure that you will have access to these treatments prior to leaving your home.  For example, a patient requiring hemodialysis on a regular basis can certainly travel with physician guidance but the destination location must have the appropriate, pre-planned access to hemodialysis.  A travel insurance specialist, will be able to assist in securing these services prior to departure and if you run out of medicine on your trip. 
  • Certain leisure activities and practices can be dangerous, whether you are at home or abroad.  If partaking in such events, please realize that you may be in a region of the world with medical care that is less advanced and less accessible than your home region.  Thus, adverse actions occurring during these practices may not be managed in a fashion consistent with your home region.


Additional resources:

By signing up for a free membership to IAMAT, travelers can get impartial recommendations from a vetted network of English-speaking doctors in more than 90 countries or, before you leave, check out their country-by-country list of health risks.

Should travelers find themselves in need of medical evacuation while abroad, MedjetAssist will provide transport to the home-country hospital of choice at no additional cost to its members. Annual membership with MedjetAssist is $270 for individual residents of the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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