When you get sick while traveling abroad, it’s frustrating, but it’s not the end of the world. We’ve survived a number of sicknesses and medical situations in foreign countries, and we can tell you that you’ll get through whatever arises. It’s not fun at the moment, but it’s really not that much different than getting sick while you’re at home.
#1 - The Pharmacy
The first thing to know about getting sick while you’re abroad is that you will be able to get access to many of the same medicines that you can get at home, and if you’re used to the hoops you have to jump through in United States, you’ll find the process is actually much simpler abroad. Your first stop if you get a minor illness while in a foreign country is to find the nearest pharmacy, which will often have a neon green cross sign outside of it.
Once you’re at the pharmacy, there will be a small amount of medicines available over the counter, but you’ll be better off to wait in line to speak to the pharmacist about what you need. In many countries, the pharmacist can assess your condition and choose a medicine for you, without needing a prescription from a doctor. I’ve shown my irritated eye to a pharmacist in Paris and had her immediately grab a bottle of eye drops off the shelf that she knew would make the redness go away, and she was right. The pharmacist can also help you find the right medicine for a cold, allergies, headaches, and other symptoms that you may be experiencing.
#2 - Hospital
If you feel like your situation is worse than can be handled at a pharmacy, then you can look for a walk-in clinic or simply go to the nearest hospital. The top concern about seeing a doctor abroad is usually how much it will cost you, but since many other countries have socialized medicine, the costs are actually much lower than what those of us in the United States pay. If you have insurance back home, you should also have the option to submit your receipt to them and get reimbursed for your medical expenses abroad.
When we were in Thailand, Joshua had horrible pain on the right side of his lower back, so we went to the hospital, where he saw a back doctor and then had an x-ray. The entire process was very smooth and efficient, with nurses leading us between each area and very short wait times to see the doctor and get the x-ray. The whole visit took about an hour, and it was only $100 to see the doctor, have the x-ray, and get four prescriptions. We actually learned after the fact that we could have taken the prescriptions with us and gotten them filled for less at an outside pharmacy, so it could have cost even less than that. So don’t let unfounded worries about costs keep you from seeing a real doctor if that’s what you need to get better and recover quickly.
#3 - Food Poisoning
Another common medical issue that occurs when you’re traveling long-term is that you’ll most likely eventually get food poisoning. Maybe it’s questionable meat from a street vendor or a spice that your body isn’t used to, but there’s a good chance that at some point you’ll face the dreaded “Delhi belly.” When this happens, you’re going to want to rest and stay hydrated.
In order to stay hydrated while going through a bout of food poisoning, coconut water, sports drinks, and electrolyte packets that you add to a bottle of water are all going to be your friends. And to help clear the toxins out of your body quickly, look for activated charcoal tablets. In Italy, we found these at a natural grocery store, and in Asia, you can readily find them in any 7-11 store. If you can get the activated charcoal (can be called ‘carbon’ in Europe) and stay hydrated, you should get through the food poisoning quickly and be back on your feet in a very short time.
Bonus - Natural Remedies and Emergency Care
To find even more solutions to medical situations that can arise while you’re traveling — and our personal experiences with getting a root canal, pregnancy ultrasound, and emergency stitches while abroad — grab The Definitive Digital Nomad Guidebook.
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There’s a full chapter dedicated to ensuring that you know everything possible about how to handle getting sick while you’re traveling abroad, in addition to managing everyday life like groceries and laundry, traveling happily with children, what to pack, where to go, and how to make money from your laptop while you travel.