Falling ill has a way of bringing out our inner child. When we find ourselves sick and traveling far from home, the desire for the familiar can be overwhelming. Everything around us from the food, to the medicine, and sometimes the language is unfamiliar and while navigating these differences is what makes travel an adventure, when we are sick and confined to a bed that is not our own, it is utterly miserable. Our hard earned holiday has gone askew.
I have ended up in a French hospital with a concussion, called a doctor to our hotel for a bed-ridden friend in Buenos Aires, and toured around Krakow solo when my traveling companion couldn’t rouse himself from the bed after coming down with flu. He famously whined, “I want water that tastes like water” and I could hardly blame him. I was reminded of the difficulty of being ill in another country earlier this week when I was felled by a super bug and ended up in the emergency room. Although I live in Johannesburg where I was able to recover in my own bed, I found myself craving homemade chicken noodle soup, confused by prescription medications that have different names than in the U.S., and generally missing home.
Getting sick while traveling in Africa can be particularly overwhelming and it’s best to be prepared for any mishaps that might occur. I always carry some basic over the counter medicine for less than serious occasions including headache tablets, cold medication, antibiotic ointment, BandAids/plasters, anti-itch cream for insect bits, and aloe vera gel or moisturizer for sunburn, insect repellant, and sunscreen. The later two are essential if you are planning on spending any time in the bush.
But, the most common illness any traveller is likely to face is a runny tummy. I am not a doctor and if you have any questions, you should consult your health care provider, but I often take a preventitive Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate) a day if I am traveling to an area where diarrhea is a problem. Across Southern Africa food preparation standards are generally high and in South Africa the tap water is safe to drink in major metropolitan areas making this a fairly uncommon problem. For those times when I am stricken with this all too common ailment, I have Imodium (loperamide) on hand (although I am loathe to take this medication except in dire circumstances) rehydration sachets, and a daily probiotic.
Malaria prophylaxis is a must if traveling to a high risk malaria zone and before I depart, I consult with the hotel, safari camp, our travel agent to find out if they are situated in a high or low risk zone. I have been prescribed medication only to find out upon arrival that malaria is virtually non-existent in the area. Knowing this information will allow you to have an informed conversation with your doctor about whether the medication is necessary, although it is best to follow the advice of your health care provider. If you plan on spending significant amounts of time in rural areas, you may want to speak to your doctor about prescribing an antibiotic.
And, if you find yourself in a more serious situation, seek out medical attention. Rely on guidance from locals when deciding where to seek care. In South Africa, you will want to go to a private hospital or facility and you should receive decent care, but you will be expected to pay cash for all services rendered. When I was in the emergency room, they even brought a credit card machine to my bedside so I could pay for my blood work before it was processed. These are the moments when you are going to want traveler’s insurance. Many U.S. insurance companies will not reimburse for care outside of the United States and in dire circumstances this is the only insurance that will cover air ambulances – a must if the healthcare system in the country you are visiting is unable to treat the severity of your illness or accident.
Lastly, rely on the kindness of others. I find this piece of advice particularly hard to follow as I have a tendency to want to tough it out and being fiercely independent, I seem to think I should do it on my own. After my emergency room visit in France, the innkeeper drove over a half hour to fetch me at 1:00am despite my protestations to the contrary. As my friend recovered in our hotel room in Buenos Aires, I went to dinner and upon finding out why I was dining alone, the waiter had the chef make soup for me to take back. Then, this past week, nearly ten hours after I fell ill, I was able to amble out of bed and send off a text message. Within minutes my colleague phoned and offered to take me to the hospital. Since there was a remote chance I had malaria and given that early diagnosis is key, I was willing to seek help early. Over the next few days she brought me food and checked in on my recovery while numerous others reached out with offers to go grocery shopping and pick-up projects at work.
There is no doubt that being sick and traveling is awful, but being prepared is key. And, granted only in hindsight, a good travel story may even come out of your misery.