Sick while you travel? Or sick of travelling?

As I hang out in London mainlining a steady stream of cups of tea with honey, it occurs to me that perhaps I could share a story about being ill while travelling and general advice for dealing with illness while away.

I’ve mentioned this in the past: I’ve travelled a lot. Sometimes it’s been for long stretches of time (6 months, or 3 months a few times), and with the additional stress on your body, illnesses happen.

Between walking huge distances every day (I often carry a pedometer and walking 30,000 steps a day, 20km, is not unusual while exploring a new city), different and inconsistent meals, jetlag, as well as exposure to different viruses and bacteria, your body often takes a battering and succumbs to illness.

Some of the fun illnesses I’ve dealt with while away from home:

  • The cough that wouldn’t go away (5 weeks in Scandinavia and Russia)
  • Conjunctivitis on three separate occasions (Oslo, Paris and Boston). Evidently my eyes hate me. It often comes on after a nasty cold/cough, so these days I’m super careful with my contact lenses when I have a cold/cough.
  • Sprained ankle (while hiking in China)
  • Countless colds/flu in a variety of places

I have to say that when you’re coughing up a lung and wake up with your eyes glued together travelling to the next city doesn’t seem very enticing. Sometimes all you really want is some time to just put the world on hold and hide in a room for a few days. That’s how I felt while on a Contiki tour. Those tours are notorious for spreading the “Contiki Cough” as there are usually 40-50 people together on the tour on a single bus so it gets passed along throughout the group.

Arriving in Oslo, I could feel my eyes being itchy in that unpleasantly familiar way so when we were told we had the afternoon to go sightsee (or otherwise) I decided to take the opportunity to get some medical aid. Others headed to the nearest museum or landmark for photographs, I headed for the information office and asked about the nearest medical centre.

This involved figuring out the bus/tram service which, trust me, is not what you feel like doing when you just want to be in bed and to be better.

Despite this, I acquired a tram ticket, directions to the medical centre and a little bit of hope. When I arrived at the sparsely populated medical centre, I explained what I needed and the (surprisingly friendly) receptionist informed me that since I was a foreigner with travel insurance I was better off going to the other medical centre several blocks away.I was not in any shape to argue so I  took her hand-drawn map and made my way to the next medical centre.

There, again served quickly, the doctor listened to my lungs and declared that it was the sort of cough that would eventually go away on its own. As far as my eyes were concerned, he wrote out a prescription and tried sending me on my way. When my hand touched the door I turned back because I realised that often eye drops require refrigeration, so I asked if these ones did. He said yes and at my request gave me an alternate option which did not require refrigeration, (preferable when on a bus tour). And so, after 3-4 hours of wandering between medical centres and pharmacies I emerged victorious (and 90 euros poorer). I was just glad I’d gotten aid in a country where many people spoke English.

My eyes cleared up after a few days and eventually so did my cough.

But these days I plan my trips differently.

Lessons learnt:

  • Travel insurance FTW! I like the peace of mind that comes with having it. And even though I’ve been reimbursed more for items I’ve lost than for health issues, it’s nice to know that if a huge cost at a hospital happened, I’d be covered. Try to get coverage which doesn’t have a charge for every time you make a claim.
  • If you’re a EU citizen, get a European Health Insurance Card for while you’re roaming around Europe.
  • If you’re being issued a prescription for medication and you know you won’t have access to a convenient fridge, ask if the prescription needs refrigeration while you’re still in the doctor’s office.
  • When planning a trip, give yourself a day or two of flexibility every 3-4 days. These can be days to go on additional trips when you’re in a cool place to be booked on the spot, or just days to chill out and catch up on sleep. I love these flexi-days, because often they end up being recover-from-a-cold time, time to let your body relax a little, or time to see something I didn’t realise existed. In fact, some of my favourite trips have been only half-planned in advance. All I plan is where I fly into, where I fly out of and perhaps the first couple nights’ accommodation. It’s often better to figure out where you want to go next than to push yourself into moving on simply because you booked the flights.
  • I always pack: a small supply of cold/flu meds, ibuprofen, paracetamol (often all three in the same pill bottle, to conserve space); a few (4-5) band-aids; an ankle brace; and a tiny bottle of germ-killing solution (50mL or so).
  • I always try to allow for adequate sleep. My body and I have apparently made an arrangement that I can get away with inadequate sleep for a few nights, but if I push it for more than a week, I will probably get sick. So sleep and I are good friends now, and I make time for it. I aim for an average of 7ish hours a night, regardless of where I am, more if I’m pushing myself physically during the day.
  • Wash your hands before you eat and drink plenty of water.
  • I avoid tours with too many people these days. Contiki goes for the fun party-bus atmosphere of 40-50 people. Tried it, not going back. Call me old if you must, but I really prefer the smaller adventure tour groups when I take a tour these days. Groups like Intrepid, or Geckos generally only take 5-12 people on each tour and you end up taking public transport throughout the country you’re seeing so you are side-by-side with a locals, rather than riding around in a fishbowl-like coach. They also tend to spend longer in each country so you’re not as rushed between cities.
  • When I get sick, I take it slower. I get more sleep, I drink lots of tea and I know I’ll get through it. So the momentary homesickness I occasionally have is only temporary. I know that now.
  • Even in the worst situation, remember you’ll get through it. A positive attitude helps a lot.
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