How to not Fall Sick While Travelling

Falling sick while travelling is never a good idea. I did not want to count how many times I had to frequent the hostel bathroom that morning. Seven. It was 8 am. This was the second time I had had food poisoning this year and the second time I fell sick within the last two weeks. Officially, this was a new low in my travel skills but no matter how great a traveller you praise yourself to be, you can only guard yourself so much against germs, bacteria and viruses. Or a bad diet.

How to not Fall Sick While Travelling
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So Frail and Stupid

There are many different ways to make yourself feel sick and you don’t need to be on the road to fall prey to them. It certainly helps when you focus more on the experience and excess that travel offers but before long your body will punish you for your neglect and I am the best example. I don’t exercise, eat particularly well or rest when I need to. Relaxation makes me anxious, a day off feels like detention. I am weird like that.

I have a friend who is a doctor with a passion. She works hard, too hard. She never takes time off to recharge and when her body has had enough, it shuts down and makes her stay in bed motionless for a week. I guess we have something in common. I am, however, apparently a very fragile person. I visit doctors a lot, I do like to google symptoms (hypochonder alert on top of being a germophobe and once I was told by the hospital staff in Preston, England, to come say hello whenever I was in town. Yes, that’s how much I go to see doctors. When I travel things are very different, though.

My allergies are somehow gone (here are my tips on how to cope with allergies while travelling as well) despite me checking out all the spring flower seasons in Japan. I only get climate shocks occasionally or a mild cold but that’s about it. Oh, and I once nearly died in the outback due to food poisoning (people, wash your hands, already!). But this is all very harmless compared to what I usually find at home. And this leads me to my first culprit for getting sick.

Don’t Let Stress Eat You up

What caused a lot of my health issues at home is not the allergens that are attacking me, trying to make my nose feel like an alien thing, but stress. Back home, I was always busy and stressed out. First, studying as hard as I could, getting a degree at home, getting another one abroad, having an internship abroad, having another one at home. I am a very ambitious person and my own worst critic. This does not make for a healthy combination and certainly not, when not only I push myself too hard but my environment does as well – and I was the worst at saying ‘no’. The same was true for my travelling. I never holidayed, I did excessive sightseeing. After my trips, I was always exhausted.

But it’s not just me, did you ever notice that a lot of people have to call in sick after having been on holiday? It’s not to get more days off but their immune system actually crashed from not having stress anymore. This is called Leisure Sickness and it appears because people are constantly pumped up and stressed out and when they suddenly have to relax, the body cannot adapt fast enough and evil bacteria and viruses take over.

Finally, if you do go on holiday, mentally prepare yourself and try to slow down instead of freaking out over your work load. And tune off. Make sure to stick to the no-work rule during your holidays. There even is a company who pays their employees to enjoy their holidays without a smartphone. That is the way forward people! (And I say that as a travel blogger whose biggest issue is exactly that, never being disconnected.)

czech-food-sick-when-travelling

Watch What You Eat

I had an amazing foodie week in the Czech Republic. Being on a press trip meant that I was able to taste a variety of delectable regional dishes each day for a week and no one needs to ask me twice about trying yummy food (except if it has innards, mushrooms or insects)! And so I ate and ate. Meat with gravy. Many potatoes. More meat and gravy. And then some desserts. Did you know that typial Czech cuisine doesn’t come with vegetables? The result was me being sick the moment I got home and my body PH value completely sour. I loved the food but the next time, I would ask for the occasional salad and fruits.

I bet you already realised how unreasonable I can be when it comes to food. And so I repeated the process again when I arrived in New York City. I ate burgers, pizzas and drank lots of milk shakes. And – surprise – I fell sick again. Now since I am bad at following through with my own advice, here is a lesson by fellow blogger Yvonne from The Tourist of Life:

“Two years ago, I went on a roadtrip through the west coast of the USA. We spent five weeks in the States, and after a week or two I got sick – which lasted until the day I returned home. Why I got sick? I know exactly why. I’ve been a vegetarian since the age of six – no meat, no fish, no nothing. I’ve never had much trouble keeping my vegetarian diet during travels, basically because most countries in Europe always have some good vegetarian options in restaurants. In the USA? No way. Burgers, steaks and some fish here and there were mostly the only options I had in restaurants.

So how to cope with that when you’re a vegetarian? I made the mistake to NOT cope with it and to stick with a diet of pizzas, American pancakes, and black bean burgers, which meant that for five weeks I almost didn’t eat anything healthy. No wonder I got ill so fast! This is why since that trip I recommend everyone to NOT change your diet and to ask waitresses if they have any other meals, than you see on the menus. Definitely watch your health when you travel and keep eating healthy! As we all know eating healthy is one of the best ways to prevent you from getting sick, so remember that!”

Be Prepared and Have Translations Ready

There is no way around it, even if you travel with light luggage or carry-on only, a fully packed medi kit is vital. Also, knowing what is in it and what it does, is essential. Case in point: I should have studied my medicinal coal instructions before I contracted food poison so as to know that’s exactly what it is for. Have something for all cases – especially if you go somewhere, where you won’t have easy access to a pharmacy or don’t know how to translate your symptoms and medicine. I highly recommend downloading the DCD travel apps for such cases as well as identifying food, as it does the translating for you, which is super helpful. I need to try this out myself (but hopefully I don’t have to too soon).

I once forgot my allergy medication for a weekend trip to Prague and on a Sunday, the wrath of my nose came upon me and my parents dragged me throughout the whole town before finding the one pharmacy that was still open and could understand German. Mind you, that was before the time of smartphones and apps. But something even worse happened to Karlie from Miss Wanderlust:

Our first visit to Africa was supposed to be exciting – we were spending two weeks traveling around Morocco for my husband’s 30th birthday. Souqs, spices and the Sahara waited for us on the other side of the Atlantic. Instead, we both fell ill and our trip was seriously affected. We are experienced travelers and had prepared well for the trip, visiting the travel health clinic for shots and packing a first aid kit with any medication we thought we may need – pills for headache, nausea, stomach problems and anxiety filled our little bag, alongside band aids, gauze and electrolyte supplements. We knew how food should be prepared and which foods to avoid. Always do your research before a trip abroad to find out this info.

Even with these precautions in place, he got food poisoning and I got an unexpected severe ear infection. Dizziness, fatigue, nausea and the inability to eat plagued me for most of the trip. A doctor was called to my room in Fes, but his treatment wasn’t enough. The riad owner in Marrakech pointed me to the International Clinic. Stress and lack of a common language got to me and I shed a few tears, but they gave me several medications and I was on the slow road to recovery. We were able to make it to our Sahara Desert camping trip a few days later; one of the most special experiences of my life. As travelers, we are not invincible, as much as we like to believe we are. I find that being over prepared helps me feel confident in the best of situations and has saved my ass more than a few times.

What to do when you are sick while travelling
Photo courtesy of Miss Wanderlust

Take Care of Yourself when You Are Sick While Travelling

Of course, you need to be insured in case something happens so that you can go to a doctor or hospital and let them take care of you without entering a downward spiral of bills and debt. But you need to take great care of yourself as well so as reduce the likelihood of bad things happening to your or, when they do, make sure you can recover quickly.

Like I said, food plays an essential part in keeping you healthy but even if you do eat healthily, you can still fall ill. I just had that happen to me when I was so hungry and rushed, I warmed up a can of spaghetti with meatballs and only noticed after swallowing it, that one meatball wasn’t fully cooked. I reheated the rest of the meal but had contracted food poison. Now I always make sure to properly heat all meat and never carry it with me on day trips. Emma from Paper Planes and Caramel Waffles learnt this lesson the hard way as well:

Working a door to door sales job is hard work. You can be out for 12 hours a day and without having a toilet or and food nearby, things can get pretty desperate sometimes. There was one day, a particularly warm summer’s day, where I hadn’t eaten much at all. I’d maybe had some chocolate, a cereal bar and half a tuna sandwich. I was starving. Now, in my door to door sales job, I carried a bunch of cool bags, or eskies as the Aussies call them. They also doubled up as a handy lunch bag, especially in the warmer weather and I was particularly grateful for it on this day when I was ravenous with hunger. It got to 8.30pm at night and I was waiting to get picked up to be taken back to the city. I couldn’t wait any longer, I had to eat something so I took my tuna sandwich out of the eksy and devoured it like I hadn’t eaten at all before.

I felt good. I’d had some food and I had the weekend to look forward to. That feeling didn’t last long, though. I had wolfed down my sandwich so quickly that I didn’t even realise it was slightly, just slightly, lukewarm. I woke up at 2am, hot and sweaty, with a horrible gurgling in my stomach. I tried to close my eyes but it was no use. I ran to the bathroom and the tuna sandwich made a reappearance with a vengeance. I’ve never been so sick in my life. To make it worse I was sleeping at a friend’s house on the sofa so I didn’t even have the comfort of my own home. I was sick for two whole days. Those two days I lay in bed with my stomach wrenching while my friends drank goon in the sun, all because my greedy belly wanted some food. And tuna has never really seemed the same…

sick while travelling with food poisoning

Forcing the Recovery

When you feel a cold coming or if the flu already has you in its iron grip, get yourself to bed this instant, have some warming soup, drink a lot and take your vitamins (better as smoothies and fruit than as powder or pills). I usually am not so disciplined, which is why my colds usually last a bit longer. I am impossible like that.

But one time, I remember, I had contracted a cold from the vicious air conditioning on the buses in England and when I visited a friend, I was seriously affected. She made me down a big glass of wine, which burnt my throat, gave me a full portion of veggies and fish and put several layers of bedding on top of me so that I would be super hot throughout the night and sweat like crazy. You know what, it actually worked miracles and the next day I was well enough again to explore Oxford. A similarly crazy story of miraculous healing is reported by Helča:

Many of my friends who travel all around the world would always tell me some crazy stories of how they had caught a cold while flying here and there or where they had to drive thousands of miles with fever. I considered myself lucky that nothing like that had ever happened to me, but it changed in July 2015. I was working as a volunteer in one small village in the Czech Republic, my home country. There were cold nights and hot days, so many volunteers were getting sick everyday because of the changing temperatures. In the end, almost all volunteers, and also I, ended up in beds with flu.

When I came back to home, I had to fly to Kenya next morning. I had fever, cold and cough. My mum thought I was crazy to fly with a flu for about 20 hours. I immediately bought a spray for my nose and during the whole evening I was drinking as much tea as possible. I took aspirin and I went straight to sleep. I knew I definitely had to sweat it off, so I covered myself with many blankets and I was wearing many sweaters and pants. The next morning, I woke up totally bathed in sweat, but I felt much better. I didn’t have a fever anymore and my cough and cold almost disappeared.

Getting Your Shots and Insurance

Whether you regard yourself as a tough nut and rarely get ill (lucky you!) or not, it is always worth considering stopping by your doctor and ask whether you should get your vaccinations renewed, add new ones to the list or maybe even get a flu shot. There is a reason for new flu shots being advertised each autumn. And you can even take ducoral to reduce the likelihood of food poisoning (why had no one told me before?!)! If you travel to countries with mosquito-borne diseases, get yourself mozzie sprays, cover up and maybe even take anti-malaria pills, etc. Sometimes it is even wiser to buy such products and get some medicines when you arrive as they are better tailored to such regional diseases and flying pests. (And could be even cheaper!) Again, always check in advance.

Another thing that needs clarification prior to your trip are your insurance details. What is covered, how can you claim it? For instance, when I lived in Sweden I had a serious allergic reaction to a medication that blew my cold away but made my throat swell up and my body look seriously sunburnt. Panicky, I made it to the health center (no individual doctor’s offices in Sweden) and wanted to have a check-up. My insurance card was not declared proper as it was not blue. My card was a print-out and was white.

What ensued was a drama of me portraying my imminent demise, grabbing my throat in a choking motion and evoking the pity of all present nurses. I was inofficially ushered into a room, examined, given antihistamines and quietly released. Afterwards I found out that I would have had to pay for each doctor’s visit and then reclaim the money from my insurance company. Ooops. The next time I knew and was treated without using my drama queen skills.

sick when travelling

Improve Your Forecasting Skills

The more I travel, the less I care about looking up weather forecasts. I find they more often than not do not apply and what I check instead are average for the specific month I am staying. Since I travel through various climate zones, I encounter all kinds of weathers. From humid hot Hong Kong summers to Antarctic breezes in New Zealand over to hurricane season in the USA and tropical beaches in Costa Rica. You get the picture. I need many versatile clothing items. The problem is, I am mighty bad at packing and choosing so that I end up believing in the layer approach but remembering once I board the cold plane that I actually hate it and it never works for my cold-feet-prone body.

And so, on my recent trip to the USA, I packed a lot of long sleeves, bought a new poncho to add to my coat and when I hit Florida, I realised I only had one T-Shirt to wear. I then also realised that I would be travelling to cold canyons in December, where I would need sweaters, scarves and gloves. I never seem to do this right. Luckily, I am not the only one who still makes such rookie mistakes. The traveltastic family of yTravel recently posted a picture on instagram admitting to a similar rookie mistake like I made in Japan. I had enjoyed warm days in Japan and celebrated with miniskirts and light shirts, which I still wore when I headed up Mt Fuji, which was suddenly 5 degrees Celsius cold. There was still snow on the volcano! How could I not have figured out it would be cold?!

So my advice is, to not only check the general temperatures of each of your destinations, but look into some special hot spots you are going to visit (such as mountains, canyons, etc) and check so during the time that you are actually there. It can always rain or storm. Shifts in temperatures are not out of the ordinary and you should better be overprepared than the opposite.

So much for the myriad of disaster stories of fellow bloggers and myself. Since we made these mistakes already, I hope you could get some points to learn from and stay super healthy on the road and enjoy your travels to the fullest. If you have your own stories to share, I’d be super happy to read about them in the comments and do some more learning. Stay healthy!

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Comments

  1. Reply

    Great article! I live in Brazil and recently my best friend came from the USA to visit me. Right before she arrived I did a whirlwind three week tour of Brazil with my husband and father-in-law and then a trip back to the USA. Long story short, while my best friend and I were in Rio de Janeiro I came down with the flu and spend most of our time in bed with a fever. It was awful. I felt so guilty that she came all this way to visit and I spent each day in bed until noon and then would muster up the strength to shower and go out to lunch with her. She was very understanding. The lesson I learned, slow down a little between trips and get some R&R to keep your immune system strong. ;)

    Cheers!
    Elizabeth

    1. Hi Elizabeth,
      I am so sorry to hear that. Having a flu when not at home is absolutely teribble. I am glad that you were not alone at least. And you didn’t have to feel guilty, that makes the recovery worse. I am sure she understood and if she are like me, she would have come to visit you first and foremost and the country second. That’s what friends are for! And your lessons are on point. I need to take your advice to heart as well. I travel way too fast. I hope you are perfectly well by now.

      Stay healthy,
      Annemarie

  2. Pingback: 18 Safety Tips for Women Travelling Alone

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