I’m writing this post from a cushy armchair rather than a hammock, in the autumnal UK. I’ve spent four weeks in four countries, and I’m ready for a rest. I started on Koh Phangan, Thailand (closing up my house there as I head back to Chiang Mai not KP when I go back to Thailand in late October), and then travelling to Dubai and Egypt where I ran some training courses, and then coming back to the UK where I did some more work.
It’s been a busy time, but not unmanageable in itself.
Except for…I’m ill. And not the usual two-chronic-conditions <yawn> ill, but what-appears-to-be-glandular-fever-ill. Sigh. Anyway, it’s prompted me to write a post about being ill when you’re travelling, to share some of my own experiences of being ill on the road, along with some tips as to how best to deal with such situations.
Being ill on the road
For those of you that live alone, you’ll know that being ill isn’t much fun. No one to bring you tea, to mop your fevered brow, or to deal with life’s admin while you snuggle up under the covers and rest. (What do you mean it’s not like that when you live with someone? Don’t ruin my illusions!)
When you’re ill whilst in a foreign country, it’s like being ill on your own – tripled. You might not speak the language, you don’t know where the nearest Doctor is, and you have no-one to ask to bring you soup.
Here are six key areas you should ideally think about before you get sick to make sure you’re ready if illness strikes. But they’ll help if you’re feeling a bit peaky too 🙂
Note I don’t think anything here is rocket science. But I know that despite me spending a bit of time thinking about it before I left the UK, I didn’t think through all of them. As always, take what you need and leave the rest!
1. Finding a Doctor
Sometimes, you’re going to need to see a Doctor. But it’s clearly important to see one where you’re able to communicate your symptoms accurately.
Here, like so many places, Google is your friend – but so are any Facebook groups or other communities online where you can get a recommendation. For example, on Koh Phangan, I went to the main hospital for one issue, and had a particularly unpleasant experience (see ‘Cutting Indifference’ here for a taste of how awful it was!). The next time I needed to go, I asked friends for recommendations, and went to the excellent (though slightly confusingly named) Bangkok Hospital Samui Clinic Koh Phangan, where I was treated with respect, had a good conversation and got the treatment I needed.
If you’re staying in a hotel, they might also have a Doctor they recommend. In Egypt, recently, I stayed in the Conrad Hilton, and they had a Doctor on call, who came to my room and examined me there, prescribed medicine, and had it sent to me, all for a very reasonable price. And he was lovely.
(My next post will be all about Egypt. And yes, I did see the Pyramids 🙂 )
2. Getting prescriptions
Once you’ve managed to see a Doctor, perhaps they’ll prescribe you something, or, if you’re like me, you might have a recurring prescription you want to get filled.
A few of pieces of advice here. If you’re seeing a Doctor, check what he or she is prescribing and why. It’s possible you might not want/need all of them. For example, one Doctor I saw wanted to prescribe me painkillers for the glandular fever, which would have been fine, but I already take stacks of those, so it wasn’t needed. There are definitely some countries where they like to prescribe more rather than less, and where sometimes people don’t feel they’ve got value for money unless they have something to take afterwards.
This leads on to the other point – if you do already take medicine, know your own prescriptions really well. I carry a copy of my repeat prescriptions and a letter from my Doctor which sets out what I take and why, mainly because I carry quite a lot of medicine with me. And when I say quite a lot, I mean hundreds of pills. Yes, it’s a real pain when you only have one suitcase, and a big chunk of your space is taken up by medicine. But it does mean that you have space for souvenirs on the way back as you’ve worked your way through them. 🙂
I take pills with me because when I did try and get my prescriptions filled abroad, I found they were crazy expensive – one of the medications only was £20 for 5 days’ worth. Not something I could pay for on a long-term basis, and also not covered by my insurance as it’s for a chronic condition.
So I work my schedule to return to the UK more than most travellers, and I get my prescriptions from my Doctor here.
So don’t assume a) that you can get access to the same medicine – I had to go to the large hospital pharmacy to even get access to the expensive pills, and b) that it’ll be affordable just because everything else in the country is.
If you’re in a hostel, a hotel or a long-stay apartment block and you know there are some other people who speak your language there (whether they’re locals or other foreigners) then don’t hesitate to ask them to bring you back a few bits from the supermarket. Usually people are more than happy to help out.
But you might not feel like talking to anyone, or be lucky enough to see anyone to ask, so it’s worth making sure you have some provisions in your room/s in case of illness. You’re probably not going to be able to get out and about if you’re feeling rotten.
Always make sure you have plenty of bottled water in your room. At the first sign of illness, make sure you have some food in. Buy some fruit, some ramen noodles that just need hot water, some biscuits, crisps, any dry food that will last (watch for ants if you’re somewhere like Thailand and don’t leave food out in the open – I store most things in the fridge, even my muesli!). If you’re feeling weak after being ill, you’re likely to need some food in you before you’re well enough to go out again.
4. Travel insurance
There seems to be a debate amongst some travellers as to whether travel insurance is worth it. And it’s true, once you’re on the road for a while, it can be harder to get covered. I use World Nomads which is great if you’re in that situation.
For me, it’s a no brainer. If you’re on the road for a while, you’re likely to run into the odd issue, even if you stay safe. I’ve had my bag stolen, and as it contained – amongst other possessions – my iPhone and my kindle, I was very happy to be insured and that the insurance covered both.
I also know of a number of people hospitalised for Dengue in the last few months, as well as various accidents, and a stay in hospital isn’t cheap. So, much like any insurance, it’s wise to pay up, and hope you never have to use it.
5. Basic First Aid Kit
I started travelling with quite a big first aid kit, but I’ve slimmed it right down now. I think it’s wise to have a few essentials, and clearly, if you’re trekking or camping, take more. But for daily city life, my kit contains:
- Insect repellent (a must!)
- Diarrhoea pils & Constipation pills – yes, it’s worth having both!
- Your painkiller of choice
- Electrolytes powder
6. Emergency Number
Do you know what the emergency number is of the country you’re in? How would you call the police, or an ambulance if something happened? In Thailand, it’s best to call the Tourist Police, who speak English, on 1155 (here are other Thai emergency numbers).
In Europe, 112 will get you there (even if the country has another emergency number, such as in the UK where 999 will also work). For other countries, have a look at this list.
Travelling with a Chronic Illness
You might have heard me mention my Chronic pain and Crohn’s disease (for more on the story read ‘How a Tangle with a Bulgarian Juggernaut on a Snowy Motorway Changed My Life‘ on my other website). Travelling with a chronic illness (or two) does take some planning.
For me, the two biggest challenges are getting my prescription medicine, as mentioned above, and balancing rest with activity. I’m not great at the latter, which you’ll know if you’ve read any of my blogs!
I’m not going to write much about those here today, but I will point you towards two great articles if you know anyone with a chronic illness.
The Spoon Theory is a heartfelt article that explains what it’s like to be chronically ill: “the difference in being sick and being healthy is having to make choices or to consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to.” If you’ve never had an illness that lasted for a few months or more, it’s worth a read.
My own experience is that it can be hard to really understand what living with a chronic illness is like if you’ve always been healthy. Which, by the way, is not a criticism as some people seem to think (just read the comments on any article about chronic illness, argh), but just a fact. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible, or no-one does understand, it just may take a little more effort and empathy.
The other article is 10 things you should stop saying to chronically ill people. I really resonate with this article – I’ve experienced all 10 in my 11 years of living with (reasonably mild) chronic conditions.
I think no 4’s my least favourite…
Better, of course, to stay healthy. But life often has other plans for us, so this list will help you be prepared just in case.
And if you’re not the ill one, but when you’re travelling you bump into someone who’s ill, then offer to help them. Get them groceries, or fill their prescription. Look up a Doctor for them. Spread a little kindness 🙂
Have you been ill whilst travelling? Or are you travelling with a chronic illness? How did you/do you manage? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.
If you’ve enjoyed my writing on WhereverTheWindTakesMe.com, you might enjoy my personal and professional development blog on my website EllenBard.com: Innovative Ideas to Make Your Life and Work Sparkle.