Handling Illness While Traveling

I’m feeling a little bit under the weather today, which got me thinking about being sick while traveling. For one (sickness-induced?) moment, I wondered just why I never got sick on our travels but managed to get some kind of crud in the haven of my home. Then, I remembered that I was blocking things out. Like the time we were flying to Cuzco from Lima, and I got to make use of LAN’s barf bags not once, but twice. Or the time both Jeff and I came down with what we strongly believe was swine flu while in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Or the couple of instances when I was glad there was immodium in our first aid kit.

Yeah, I got sick on the road. Not often, knock on wood, but occasionally. I doubt that that comes as a surprise to anyone. Keeping strange schedules, eating unfamiliar foods, sharing cramped spaces with strangers, sleeping (or not) in uncomfortable places is bound to get to you sometimes, and every once in a while your immune system is going to yell ENOUGH! When it does, I’ve found it best to listen.

Because it’s unlikely that your mommy is going to be able to show up with glasses of Sprite and bowls of chicken noodle soup, I’ve found that it’s good to have an idea of how to take care of yourself. (Though if the mommy option is available, I highly recommend taking it.)

1. First of all, listen to your immune system and take a break. Jumping on the next train or pushing through another day of sight seeing when you’re not feeling well is not going to make you better. It will probably make you worse, and you certainly won’t enjoy whatever it is you’re doing if instead you’d rather be under the covers and moaning (and no, not in that way). Give yourself permission to take it easy. On longer trips, this is easier to do, but you should do it on shorter trips as well. In the end, you’ll enjoy the experience so much more—even if you do lose a day or two.

2. Upgrade your accommodations. Now is not the time for budget travel. You don’t have to end up at the Four Seasons, but you shouldn’t end up in the dorm room at a hostel either. First of all, no one else wants your germs. Don’t be a jerk. Secondly, when you have to go the bathroom NOW, you don’t want to sprint down the hall to find it occupied. You also don’t want to be contemplating when the last time the bathroom was cleaned as you hang your head over the toilet or curl up on the bathroom floor. When I got sick in Cusco, we had already booked a night at a hostel that turned out not to be good for illness. It was freezing cold, and the bathroom was barely enclosed, meaning Jeff and my brother Gregory got to hear all of my retching. So they immediately headed out (leaving me under about 10 blankets) to find another place. The hostel we originally booked let us out of our reservation, but even if they hadn’t, it would have been worth the money lost to relocate. When we were sick in Siem Reap, we were luckily already checked into the perfect place. It had a lot of things that we originally thought unnecessary since we planned to spend all our time at Angkor Wat (TV, AC, huge bathroom with hot water), but which we were glad to have when we were in the throes of swine flu. Trust me, I said multiple prayers of thanks for the hot water shower, as I stood under it in fever-induced shivers at 3 a.m.

3. Indulge in comfort foods. When we travel, we usually try to avoid the fast food joints and the American-style restaurants and instead opt to eat where the locals eat. It’s almost always cheaper, and it also allows us to expand our palettes. It also helps us meet and interact with locals. When we’re sick, however, we don’t spent a moment feeling guilty about not trying the local cuisine. If a bowl of tomato soup from the Panera style cafe or a big serving of mashed potatoes for KFC is going to make me feel better, than there’s no reason for me not to have it. When I’m back up and running, I can try the fried crickets or whatever else the local delicacy is.

4. Consult the medical kit. Though most of the time, a medical kit feels like extra weight, the moments when you need it, make it worth every ounce. By carefully packing a medical kit before departure, you can put yourself immediately on the road to recovery when illness sicks. You’ll want ibuprofin or aspirin to deal with the aches and pains, a packet of Cipro or some other broad-spectrum antibiotic for when you come down with strep throat or some other treatable bacterial illness, and immodium for times when you need a bathroom but there’s not one around. It’s a good idea to know how you handle certain medicines before you go. For instance, we took Pepto Bismal tablets with us. I’d never taken them before, but just assumed they’d work fine. In fact, they worked like ipecac syrup for me. The moment one went in my mouth, I hurled. Another great thing to have in our opinion are the individual Gatorade packets. We took these for our hiking trips, but they were wonderful when we were sick and needed to rehydrate and up our electrolytes. (Also, even if you are like us and drink the local water 90% of the time, it’s worth splurging on bottled water when you’re sick. The last thing your body needs is more foreign bodies.)

5. Get help when necessary. If you have a fever that won’t break, have injured yourself (broken bones or bad cuts), been bit by a stray or wild animal, throw up blood, or just feel beyond horrible, give up on self-treatment and seek help immediately. Though I am weary of foreign medical experiences (perhaps it’s because of that doctor in Athens who cut my spider bite open without a bit of anesthetic or antiseptic and thus caused an infection that took six weeks to heal and required daily medical attention—or perhaps it’s just natural weariness), I would never avoid help if I needed it. If we had not begun to feel some sense of recovery after 24 hours with what we thought to be swine flu, we would have sought help. We didn’t immediately seek help because Cambodia was quarantining people with swine flu, and we really didn’t want to be quarantined in a foreign country (though we did opt for self quarantine), and additionally because we had a good college friend who lived in Siem Reap and checked up on us regularly. If you don’t want to go straight to a doctor, stop in a pharmacy to see what help they can offer. Be smart about drugs, however, as fakes are unfortunately common. Ask for pills in their original packaging and try to seek out a pharmacy of good reputation.

6. When there’s no other option, suck it up and gut it out. Though I highly recommend giving yourself a break whenever that’s a viable option, I recognize that sometimes it’s not. The reason Jeff, my brother Gregory, and I flew to Cuzco was to hike the Inca Trail. Arriving there ill had me worried, but we arrived three days before our departure for the hike. I spent the first one doing nothing but relaxing and taking care of myself. I then woke up on day two feeling 100 percent fine. A 24-hour virus I decided. We spent the entire day touring Incan sites around the city. No problem, On hike day, I woke up again feeling fine. No problems on the bus ride, at breakfast, or as we set off on the hike. At a stop about 30 minutes before lunch, I started to feel a bit queasy. Altitude, I thought. Or maybe just hunger. When we sat down for lunch, I scarfed everything on my plate. When we stood up from eating, I promptly lost every single bite into the buses. Tears streamed down my face. My brother had flown all the way from home to do this hike. This was the only part of our entire trip that we had booked in advance. I had my heart set on this. Plus, it wasn’t like I could just step off the trail and be done. My options were to hike forward or to hike backward. I opted for forward. I took a pill. I kept away from everyone except Jeff and Gregory. I was careful to not share anything. That afternoon was torturous. I had just finished work on a hiking book that summer and had expected to lead the group. Instead I was forcing myself to take ten steps before stopping and resting on the side of the trail. But eventually I made it to camp, and when I woke up the next day I was fine. And I was fine on the next one too. And I was fine, as well, on the final day when we marched down to Machu Picchu, the final goal, the reason we’d signed up to hike the trail in the first place.

3 thoughts on “Handling Illness While Traveling”

  1. Just don’t get sick on the 3rd day, also known as the hardest day, of the Inca Trail hike. I don’t know if Theresa shared her germs with me or not, but I epically survived day three of the hike on Jello and Gatorade (two items I wansn’t very fond of to begin with, and almost never touch these days). I won’t share the details, but there was explosive _______ and projectile _______. Miraculously I felt amazing during the day at Machu Picchu, only to lose it again just before we took the train back to Cuzco.

  2. The only time I’ve gotten a serious flu was when I was writing my first guidebook in Spain. I had been staying in all budget/hostel accommodation as they didn’t give me a penny in expenses, but luckily I had swung a few comped nights at the nicest place in Bilbao when the flu hit! I said, if I had to be on my death bed, at least it was in five-star luxury, right?? But getting sick on the road is the absolute pits. There’s nothing more that you want than being home.

  3. Great advice! These tips are all so true – and ones I have to remind myself of often. I got really really sick while in Vietnam and kept pushing through because I wanted to see this, wanted to see that. My boyfriend had to literally force me into bed and drag me to a better hostel (with our own bathroom). When I got home I was sick for another two weeks, but I wouldn’t have been so bad had I just taken it easy while still in Vietnam.

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