Sick & Solo: travel is not always fun.

Sick traveler altitude sickness

Altitude sickness is one illness you can plan to prevent.

Being sick is no fun. Being sick when you’re alone is even worse. But, being sick, alone and away from home – that has to be one of the most miserable experiences ever.

So far I’ve been fortunate. I haven’t had this experience. But some have so I’ve drawn on the knowledge of others for this post, including members of the Solo Travel Society and Jesse of  World Nomads, a travel insurance company that offers travelers a vibrant community and extensive resources on their site.

Here’s advice that’s easy to swallow. (But, a disclaimer: this is not to replace the professional advice of your physician. You are responsible for all decisions you take regarding your health.)

The first part of each section is by Jesse, then comes the advice from the Solo Travel Society

1. Plan not to get sick – prevention.

When it comes to getting sick on the road, the old adage “Prevention is better than cure” is the best principle to live by. There are many, many ways to prevent sickness in the countries you travel to.

First, inform yourself about any bugs, viruses, diseases and other nasties you may encounter. Then, 4-6 weeks before your trip, make sure you talk to your doctor about what kind of vaccinations you will need – and get them. It’s amazing how many people still don’t bother with vaccinations despite the very obvious risks.

Once you have your shots and are on your way, inform yourself about the different practices regarding food and drink in the countries you visit. Should you drink bottled water or is tap water ok? Are the food standards worse than the country you are from? Look at all of these things and make informed decisions about what to eat or drink – a huge amount of travel sickness simply comes from what you put in your body.

Prepare for specific health problems that you will encounter in your destination. If you are traveling to high mountain ranges, prepare for altitude sickness. If you are traveling to areas with a high incidence of Dengue fever, pack lots of mosquito repellent. Do your research and know the risks.

Also, take it easy on the alcohol and stock up on your vitamins. It’s very easy to get carried away with the excitement of travel and forget about the vitals. Keep a couple of bottles of multivitamins in your travel pack and make sure you munch on them at least once a day. Your immune system is boosted when you have a healthy dose of vitamins.

Travel First Aid kit. Click photo 4 details.

 From the Solo Travel Society.

Kevin Most people become sick after they arrive, so preventive measures is what I do. First, a trip to the Doc to get antibiotics specifically for the digestive system. Don’t wait ’till you get sick, start taking them before you leave. Ask the Doc what’s best. I don’t care what country I’m in, it’s bottled water or another bottled product, cokes or beer. In Belize I drank only bottled water and Belkin Beer, made in Belize.

If you like traveling outside the western world, don’t pick that fruit off the tree without washing it very well. Bacteria big time. Get any vaccinations you may need.

If you do get sick, don’t wait around. Get to a clinic or hospital and head it off. You don’t need to be in Europe for 1st class Med Care. Costa Rica, third World country has some of the best care in the world.

I’m a little off topic, but prevention will allow you to enjoy, quick med care will decrease symptoms and shorten your sick time. Waiting it out will ruin your trip & could result in a deterioration in your illness.

Velo Keep hydrated. If the water is dodgy, purification tablets will do the job. Know when you’re approaching burn-out being on the go constantly and take a rest day (which is hard to do when there’s so much to explore). The Lonely Planet books have a medical section that’s a good reference if you might need a pharmacy.

Melany Focus on boosting immune system and decreasing stress. 99% of illness is stress related. Traveling is stressful. Traveling alone is less stressful for me because then I can really let go and just go with the flow, which sometimes means just slowing down, eating simple nutritious food, getting plenty of sleep, and taking a break from stressful relationships. Wheatgrass juice and zinc lozenges are what I use at the first sign of illness, so far I’ve been lucky…

Kristin Before leaving the country ask your doctor for a small dose of emergency meds to carry with you. I chose not to do that last year and regretted it.

2. If you do get sick – what to do.

Health systems in every country you travel to will differ. Some, like the UK, are funded almost entirely by the government, some  are barely existent, and some are quite comprehensive. You need to know what you need to do and who to see if you are sick in your destination country(s).

If you are sick in a country where you do not speak the language, you will need to learn phrases so you can explain at a rudimentary level what is wrong with you so your physician can make a proper diagnosis.  You should also know the number for emergency services if it gets to that stage – check the websites of the foreign office for the country in which you are staying, all the information you need should be there.

You should know basic phrases in the language to assist operators in case of emergency.  World Nomads provides a range of language guides for all over the world – all available as iPhone apps for ease of use. This all requires research and dedication, but its time well spent if you end up keeled over with a devastating illness.

If you are sick in countries where the health system is marginal at best, you are in for a bumpy ride. Some countries can barely sustain a health program for their own people, let alone the needs of visitors. For dangerous, poor and unstable areas, the more preventative measures you can take the better – because once you are in the thick of it, it’ s very hard to negotiate a good doctor.

Finally, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Many travelers may get a bout of illness and simply brush it off as a simple lurgy, and book into a luxury suite to sleep it off. But are you a doctor? The symptoms of Dengue Fever are a mild flu – if any appear at all – and the effects of that illness can be devastating.  So if you get sick, do your best to get it checked.

From the Solo Travel Society

Tania This is when I spend more money on a nicer hotel because if I have to lie in bed, I might as well be comfortable. I’ve been sick in a youth hostel with a bunch of yahoos and it made things worse.

Connie Crawl into a private room with TOILET EN SUITE and wait for it to get through your system! Trust me, it’s worth the extra money and almost always someone at the hotel will be willing to help you resupply with water, toast, etc.

James Serious Delhi belly in Chiang Mai, the pharmacist was brilliant, but prevention always better than cure.

Lucy I’ve found that pharmacists give great advice on treatments for illness ranging from sinus infections to (I’ll admit this only to you folk) ringworm.

And, of course the kindness of strangers. I once spent a night at the monastery at the foot of Mt St Catherine in the Sinai. I don’t remember a thing but they must have done a good job nursing since I’m still here!

3: Get insured!

Having adequate medical insurance for your trip is an absolute must. Traveling is relatively expensive to start with – it becomes even worse if you get sick and are hit with a whopping bill for medical costs. You need to look at where you are traveling, and what could potentially happen to you, and get adequate cover.

When you are healthy and fit in your home country and preparing you trip, its very easy to say “I don’t need that”. But if it comes to the crunch, you will be kicking yourself later that you didn’t sign up.

Also, if you are sick, you can contact your insurance company who can help you in a manner of ways – they can recommend a clinic, or have a doctor sent out to you if things are that bad. They can also contact your family on your behalf, and even organize repatriation if it is required. It’s not just peace of mind, its real assistance when things get rough.

 From the Solo Travel Society

Lee For severe illness travel insurance or Amex travel help is important. Hotels don’t want you around when you are ill.
  • Tore Haaland

    And there is another side to it as well-antibiotics also kills the natural bacterial flora in the system-actually opening up for invading microbes when you stop taking the antibioutics-in adition one might get physical proplems like diharroea….one of the most problematic symptoms of the “every day” disease case.

  • Lisa

    Never take antibiotics for the sake if it! Take them with you, maybe, but you should only take them if you teally. Eed the . This article make a dangerous suggestion to people who may not know better.

  • Marcia

    I get wide-spectrum antibiotic and lomotil (anti-diarrheal) prescriptions from my doc before I leave. I am prone to UTIs and antibiotics are only cure. In Italy, I had a problem and found milk of magnesia at the pharmacia. I will never travel again without travel insurance – I didn’t really think about it before.

  • Barbara

    I was about to mention Iamat. You join online, you have a card like a credit card, you contact them to find a Dr. who speaks your language.

  • Barbara

    I carry wet wipes and a small bottle of liquid hand sterilizer. In a pinch, just straight rubbing alcohol is great.

  • Barbara

    Here’s a recipe for tourist tummy I got from an expate in Mexico: 1 bottle of Fanta, juice from several small Mexican limes, 1 Tablespoon cornstarch. Mix and drink. I was already well and so haven’t tried it.

  • @TravelEater

    I’m a bit worried by the comment in the article “…trip to the Doc to get antibiotics specifically for the digestive system. Don’t wait ’till you get sick, start taking them before you leave. Ask the Doc what’s best. ”
    Taking antibiotics that you don’t need (and not finishing your prescription) — this is why we have an antibiotic resistance problem. Sadly some doctors contribute to the problem by prescribing unnecessary antibiotics too (eg when you have a cold, antibiotics won’t help – a cold is caused by a virus).
    I completely agree with getting an antibiotic to take with you on a trip where food-borne illness is likely. And if you are sick for more than a day or two, take (and finish) the antibiotic. But taking an antibiotic before you leave home when you are not even sick doesn’t make sense.

  • Deborah Fortuna

    I got sick in Bangkok, went straight to Bumrungrad hospital and the doctor was great. I was feeling better within 24 hours.

  • Janice Waugh

    You’re spot on Robin. Thanks!

  • Robin Burks

    I didn’t see the most important rule of staying healthy while traveling: wash your hands! And do it often. It’s a simple thing that can prevent a lot of illnesses.

  • Amy Hollings

    holy moly heck. my first time far away from home ended with a terrible ear infection that finally brought me home, and the next time away from home, I got food poisoning on the layover before the ten hour flight home. I do love me a good adventure, but I am glad none of my illnesses abroad has ended up as bad as they could have. I have learned about this resource- but have never needed it, so far. Anyone else know more about it?

  • santafetraveler

    I travel with herb, essential oils. homeopathic remedies Emergen-C etc. First of all, they keep me healthier and if I get sick, they help me to get better quickly. For dire emergencies, I often have anti-biotics with me.
    I also use a personal air-purifier when I fly so I am not breathing in the recycled cabin air. I find this makes a huge difference. Can also use it when traveling on public ground transportation.

  • Kevin Hawley

    I found this website after my last post and looked through it. It pertains to the Parasite Giardia & has several subtopics concerning the bug. I decided to post the link to this one as it a very easy read but very comprehinsive at the same time. It’s one you should bookmark.

    Note – I used the words both parasite & bacteria for this. Correction: It is a Parasite, not Bacterium. Meaning it cannot be cured with antibiotics. And is one of the most common digestive tract illnesses. But give that web page a read and you’ll understand why I am so serious about precautionary steps with this.

  • Kevin Hawley

    Part of Jooei’s comment reminded me of something I left off my earlier Post.
    If you do get sick, it is commonly from bacteria entering the digestive system. This can be milkd or quite serious. As a backpacker I have to bump my caution up a bit as we are drinking ground water. We use filters and / or tablets. but all it takes is a drop of water carrying the parasite Giardia. You may be filtering your water in that nice cool Rocky Mountain stream, while it splashes up on your hand. And that’s all she wrote as soon as you wipe you mouth with those hands. Giardia takes at least a week to run it’s course & your in the middle of no where with only your two feet to get you out. But this parasite puts you down big time. Joei’s mention about the gatorade reminded me of this as if you get hit a strong bug and you have a long trek or ride to medical care, drink, drink, drink, fluids. Your going to lose a lote of body fluid and I think we all known where we will be losing it from, not pleasant. If you don’t replace the fluid loss, then you just gave yourself med. problem #2 dehydration. Don’t compound the issue. And for the backpacker’s, usually there are more than a Solo, there should be in most cases. My point there is, if one catch’s the bug from hell and your trip out of the mountains is two or three day’s. Sit tight and send your travelling companion for help. You will not make it, it’ll get worse. Be sure you bought that Search & Rescue card before you left. For $10-$12 bucks it covers your ride in the helicopter to the hospital. otherwise your looking at $1,500.00 and up. I know I went a little off topic, maybe…but if your going to give advice you might as well give the whole story. I see people airlifted out where I live every year and a few fatalities. just plan ahead and take the necesaary steps where ever you are.

  • Joei Carlton Hossack

    I don’t have to think too far back. I ended up with a touch of food poisoning New Year’s Day 2010. I was in a campground and was supposed to leave that day. I decided to stay another week for 2 reasons. I didn’t want to be on the road (in my camper) needed facilities sometimes immediately and (2) I didn’t want to be in a campground not knowing anyone. It worked out well. When friends came to say “goodbye” I told them I was staying another week and explained why. When asked what I needed I said Gatorade and was feeling better by the end of the day. Still glad that I stayed a week. Joei