Being sick is no fun.
Being sick when you're alone is even worse.
But, being sick when traveling alone, that has to be one of the most miserable experiences ever.
So far I've been fortunate. I've had an injury but I've never been sick. However many readers have. For this post I've drawn on the knowledge of members of the Solo Travel Society and Jesse of World Nomads, a travel insurance company that offers travelers a vibrant community and extensive resources on their site. They also happen to be the travel insurance company I like. Read Going Alone? Travel Insurance is a Must. They understand solo travelers.
Before providing advice I have to say that this does not replace the professional advice of a medical professional. You are responsible for all decisions you take regarding your health.
Prevention: Travel Solo and Plan Not to Get Sick
When it comes to getting sick on the road, the old adage “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure” is the best principle to live by. There are many, many ways to prevent sickness in the countries you travel to. Here are Jesse's recommendations.
- Consider a trip to your doctor. Inform yourself about any bugs, viruses, diseases and other nasties you may encounter. Four to six weeks before your trip, make sure you talk to your doctor about what kind of vaccinations you will need – and get them. It’s amazing how many people still don’t bother with vaccinations despite the very obvious risks. Read Travel Clinic Cool.
- Research issues around food and water. Should you drink bottled water or is tap water okay? What concerns might there be around food? Should you opt for cooked food only or are fresh fruits and vegetables okay? Perhaps only fruits that you can wash and peel are okay. Look at all of these things and make informed decisions about what to eat or drink because much travel sickness is simply a matter of what you put in your body.
- Prepare for specific health problems. If you are traveling to high mountain ranges, prepare for altitude sickness. If you are traveling to areas with a high incidence of Dengue fever, pack lots of mosquito repellent. If you're going to desert areas, know how you'll stay hydrated. Do your research and know the risks.
- Consider a vitamin regime. It’s easy to get carried away with the excitement of travel and forget about your daily nutrition. Keep a bottle of multivitamins in your travel pack and make sure you have at least one a day. This will boost your immune system.
Velo “Keep hydrated. If the water is dodgy, purification tablets will do the job. If you're constantly on the go be aware when you're approaching burnout and take a rest day (which is hard to do when there's so much to explore). The Lonely Planet books have medical sections that are a good reference if you need a pharmacy.”
Melany “Focus on boosting your immune system and decreasing stress. Traveling is stressful and much of illness is stress related. For me, traveling alone is less stressful because I can really let go and just go with the flow which sometimes means just slowing down, eating simple nutritious food, getting plenty of sleep, and taking a break from stressful relationships. Wheatgrass juice and zinc lozenges are what I use at the first sign of illness. So far I've been lucky.”
What to Do If You Get Sick When Traveling Solo
Is it a cold or something worse? If you do get sick as your travel solo the first thing to do is take note of how you feel. You need to be really self-aware so that you know if you're getting worse or getting better.
- If it's something minor. If it's a cold or a headache or a minor upset stomach, slow down for a bit. Take the day off and rest. Be especially mindful of your nutrition and fluid intake. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages and drink lots of water.
- If you're hurt, feel really sick or are getting progressively more sick
- If it's an emergency.
- Contact the local emergency service first. Here's a chart for emergency numbers around the world.
- Use the public healthcare system where possible as that may be a requirement of your insurance.
- Contact the emergency number of your travel insurance company. The number should be on your travel insurance card. I keep this card and information with my passport so that I always know where it is.
- If it's not an emergency. Call the emergency number of your travel insurance provider first. When you call them they'll want to know:
- Your policy number
- A contact number for where you are now
- The nature of your problem
- If you are ill or injured and any details of medical consultations you have already had
- Get the medical documentation. To make your medical claim to your insurance company you'll need proof of the services and expenses you experienced. You'll need:
- Doctor or other medical practitioner’s report confirming your illness.
- Hospital Admission report, if you’re admitted to hospital.
- Ambulance and Medical evacuation reports if relevant.
- Keep receipts of additional expenses. If you've had to change plans because of illness, rebook flights, pay cancellation fees and more, keep the paperwork showing these expenses. Depending on your travel insurance they will be paid for.
- Try to cross the language barrier. If you're in a country where you don't know the language take what time you can to figure out how you will communicate your issues.
- Google Translate is quite good for this. It's a free app for your phone. Open the phone. Choose the language you want to translate to. Click on the microphone. Speak into your phone and the app will say that same sentence in the language you chose.
- Don't have the app? If you think it through you can be quite effective with your own sign language and sound effects. I've covered a number of situations this way.
- If you want to learn a bit of the language before you go check out World Nomads language guides. They are available as apps for your phone.
- If it's an emergency.
If you are sick in countries where the health system is marginal at best, you are in for a bumpy ride. Some countries can barely sustain a health program for their own people let alone the needs of visitors. For dangerous, poor and unstable areas, the more preventative measures you can take the better – because once you are in the thick of it, it can be very hard to negotiate a good doctor. This is where your travel insurance company can be of great assistance.
Finally, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Many travelers may get a bout of illness and simply brush it off as lethargy, booking into a luxury suite to sleep it off. But are you a doctor? The symptoms of Dengue Fever are a mild flu – if any appear at all – and the effects of that illness can be devastating. So, if you get sick, do your best to get it checked out right away.
Tania This is when I spend more money on a nicer hotel because if I have to lie in bed, I might as well be comfortable. I've been sick in a youth hostel with a bunch of yahoos and it made things worse.
James I had serious Delhi belly in Chiang Mai and the pharmacist was brilliant. But prevention is always better than the cure. And, of course the kindness of strangers. I once spent a night at the monastery at the foot of Mt St Catherine in the Sinai. I don't remember a thing but they must have done a good job nursing since I'm still here!
Get Travel Insurance
When you are healthy and fit in your home country and preparing for your trip its very easy to think “I don’t need travel insurance”. Traveling is relatively expensive to start with but it becomes even worse if you get sick and are hit with a whopping bill for medical costs. Travel insurance not only protects you from these costs but can help you get the care you need by recommending a clinic or having a doctor sent to you. And, especially important to the solo traveler, most insurance plans will send someone to your side if you are hospitalized.
Here’s my analysis in detail as to why travel insurance is a must and how to buy it: Going Alone? Travel Insurance is a Must.