science of us

What to Do If You Get Sick on Vacation in Another Country

Photo: Bombaert Patrick/Getty Images

You’ve put on your out-of-office message, somehow stuffed a week’s worth of clothing into a carry-on bag, crammed yourself into an airplane seat for several hours — and now, finally, you’re here and you’re ready. You’ve earned this vacation, and as soon as you nap off your jetlag, you’re ready to kick into full-on tourist mode.

And then you wake up from said jetlag nap with a scratchy throat and a fever. Or you can’t fall asleep because your head is killing you all of a sudden. Or you never even make it to the bed, because whatever snack you picked up on the way to your hotel has sent you straight to the toilet.

Getting sick while traveling abroad is unpleasant for many reasons — you have things you came here to do, you’re away from all the comforts of home, you’re already exhausted — but it can also be both confusing and a little scary. You’re in a country with an unfamiliar health-care system, where you may or may not speak the language, and you don’t even know what they sell here to help bring down a fever. Here’s what to do if it happens to you — and how to overcome your body’s sabotage to salvage as much of your vacation as possible.

Pack wisely.

This isn’t helpful if you’ve already left on your trip, but if you haven’t, make sure you have an extra supply of any prescription medicines you might need — ideally about a week’s worth, advises David Hamer, a professor of global health and medicine at Boston University and a fellow of the International Society of Travel Medicine. At the very least, make sure you have a piece of paper listing all your prescriptions and medical conditions, and keep it on you in case of emergency. If you tend to be susceptible to certain conditions in general — you get nauseous easily, maybe, or you suffer from allergies — it might also be worth bringing along a supply of the over-the-counter meds you rely on back home.

Look up the generic names of the drugs you need.

If, on the other hand, you’re reading this because you’ve already left, know that navigating a foreign drugstore doesn’t need to be confusing as long as you know the generic name of what you’re looking for. If you’re hunting for a Tylenol substitute, for example, look for acetaminophen; if you need a Benadryl equivalent, it’s diphenhydramine.

In some countries, you can also get drugs over the counter that you’d need a prescription for back home, says David Freedman, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and founder of the university’s Travelers Health Clinic — bad for global antibiotic resistance, but great if you find yourself overseas with a killer UTI. Whatever you need at the pharmacy, a quick Google should go a long way toward helping you get what you need.

Call your doctor back home.

“You can do crude telemedicine,” Freedman says. “Nowadays, when you have cell-phone service just about anywhere, if you have a problem and you have a regular care provider, it’s well worth the investment just to phone them up.” If you have a weird rash, for example, and a doctor back home who’s willing to FaceTime, that’s probably a good first step — if they say it’s nothing to worry about, go on your merry way. If it is something concerning, at least you know for sure that you’re not wasting precious vacation hours by seeking out an in-person appointment somewhere. Your cell phone bill may take a hit, but at least you get some peace of mind.

Use your network (or the U.S. Embassy) to find help.

If you have friends or acquaintances close to where you’re staying (or know someone who does), Hamer recommends reaching out to them first for advice on where to go for treatment, along with the U.S. embassy of the country you’re in: “They often will have a list of local physicians, clinics, hospitals they they recommend,” he says, though “you might not get through to somebody” on an evening or a weekend. If that’s the case, Hamer adds, there are plenty of other online resources with similar information: the International Society of Travel Medicine has a worldwide clinic directory, as does the International Association of Medical Assistance to Travelers, and your insurance or credit card company may be of help as well.

Choose your meals wisely.

If your troubles are mostly gastrointestinal in nature, unfortunately, you’re going to need to skip out on sampling the local cuisine and stick to the same bland diet you would back home — rice, bananas, no dairy, nothing spicy, et cetera. It’s a bummer, yes, but then again, so is diarrhea.

“You know what they say about travel,” Hamer says. “It opens the mind, and it loosens the bowels.”

Know the warning signs for something more serious.

Depending on where in the world you’re visiting and what’s going on with your body, there are some cases where you’re going to want to be extra cautious. “There are some serious diseases that can start off with very mild symptoms and need to be treated quite quickly,” Freedman says. Malaria is one of them; if you’re in a country where it’s endemic, you’re going to want to see a doctor as soon as you start to feel ill, even if what you’re experiencing feels like a regular cold. Freedman also recommends getting yourself to a doctor immediately if you have a fever combined with bloody diarrhea, which can be a sign of dysentery, or a significant fever that isn’t accompanied by any other symptoms.

Assuming none of those apply to you, though, it may be tempting to suck it up and just push on with everything you had planned — after all, you didn’t hop a plane and come all this way just to stay holed up in a strange bed for several days. And while it’s not ideal to, as long as you make sure to drink plenty of fluids and not push yourself too hard, it’s not the end of the world.

You know what, though? Sometimes it’s okay to just give up, too. True, your itinerary probably didn’t include several hours of Netflix in a hotel room. But that’s a vacation in its own right.

What to Do If You Get Sick on Vacation in Another Country