Travel Health 5


Travel is exciting, adventurous, fun and….exhausting. Travel health is the key. We hope to be at our best on our vacations, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out and we end up at our worst. A crash and burn when you are away from home is a bummer, but being in a foreign country can be an uncomfortable experience, even a disaster.

My son and I have been putting the pedal to the metal these past three weeks, doing as much as we can before he has to go. Last night, my son hit the wall. He got sick. It wasn’t pretty. Luckily, his mom knows a thing or two about travel health and has been able to help him stay comfortable while working through the problem. When I, a family member, or a tour client are sick, I have my mental list and my health kit to turn to. I thought it might be an interesting resource for you too.

Come Prepared

It’s a great idea to hit the doctor’s office before you depart and make sure you are in good shape. Double check your immunizations, make sure your prescriptions are correct and get written copies of them in case you need more. Find out what your typical prescriptions and over-the-counter medications are called in the local language. You might be surprised to know that Tylenol is not called acetaminophen in Europe. It’s called paracetamol. Find that out before you’re desperate.

Ask your insurance company what to do in case of an emergency and be sure you’re covered abroad. Some insurance companies need to be notified quickly if you want to be reimbursed. If you’re not covered, you may want to consider taking out a travel insurance policy. The evacuation costs of a major injury can be staggering, so this is something to consider.

Assemble a Medical Kit

Put together a small first aid kit and bag of emergency medicine. I’m not talking about emptying your whole medicine cabinet into your bag, I’ve seen lots of people who go way overboard in this department and end up looking like small-time drug dealers.

Personally, I bring a few tablets of each of these medications: Aleve for back aches, Aspirin for headaches, Tylenol PM for sleeplessness, Benedryl for allergic reactions or congestion, a couple packets of Alka Seltzer PM flu medication just in case. If you’re prone to bladder infections or UTIs, you’ll want to bring Uristat since that isn’t available in Europe. Additionally, I like the Cold Eeze zinc tablets for low level colds. It may be a placebo but it makes me feel better. Add to this the list of any of the meds you typically like to have on hand. I bring a Benedryl pen for bug bites since I’m pretty allergic.

There are lots of first aid kits on the market for travelers, I’ve altered a little one into what I call the Box of Awesome. If you’re accident prone you may want to go for a big one, but I bring a little one with the basics that seems to work just fine. A few bandages in a variety of sizes, sterile wipes and a bit of gauze will do. High quality tweezers are also a great addition.

Get Help Sooner Rather Than Later

The worst illnesses I’ve dealt with have been ones that started way before I knew about them. Many people get symptoms while traveling but don’t want to trouble their travel partner or tour guide so they ignore or hide how they feel. Bad, bad idea. So many problems can be easily solved by a quick trip to the pharmacy, but those that wait usually end in a doctor’s office, effectively quadrupling the amount of time required to deal with it. I’m not pointing fingers here, but it’s usually the men. Ask for help!
Low level problems can often be solved at a Farmacia here in Italy or equivalent in most European countries. The pharmacists are like quasi-doctors who can help diagnose and dispense simple medications. Big cities will usually have a pharmacy with an English speaker on hand, just ask. Even if you never see a 24 hour pharmacy, they do exist. The pharmacies take turns being open, a list posted near the door of the pharmacy will tell you whose turn it is to be open.

Along with pharmacies, you’ll also find parapharmacies, which offer similar services but cannot prescribe drugs. I’ve found that they tend to give out homeopathic meds. I’ve had great luck with the local pharmacies, but beware that the European approach to medicine is quite different than what you are used to. Many meds will have a homeopathic component to them. Some meds will help the root cause but not ease the discomfort as pain relief is not as aggressive in Europe as it is in the US. Pharmacists will do what they can but may refer you to a doctor if they feel your issue is out of their league.

If you really need a doctor, your hotel is a great resource. Most hotels know of local doctors that speak a variety of languages, and can often find ones willing to make house calls. If I’m looking for a doctor for my clients, I call hotel owners that I trust. Same thing for dental emergencies, ask the hotel for suggestions.

If you need a doctor NOW but not an ambulance, like if you’ve broken a bone, take a taxi to the hospital. Your hotel can call one, or any person walking past you with a cell phone. The drivers typically know which hospitals have emergency rooms that can deal with foreigners. Don’t think twice about going to the emergency room if you need it, no hospital in Europe will turn you away, regardless of your insurance policy or bank account.

In a severe emergency, don’t dial 911 in Europe, the number here is 112 and works in all countries. Don’t worry about language, they will find someone to help.

Avoid Getting Sick

The best way to deal with travel health concerns is to avoid them all together. So many common illnesses can be avoided. My top travel health tip: wash you hands. It’s pretty simple. Whenever you see a sink and soap, go use it. Think about all of the surfaces you touch while on the road- hand rails, bags that have been in cargo holds, public transport with who-knows-what on the walls. Ick. It’s so easy to touch something dirty without noticing and then touch your eye…bingo! You are the lucky recipient of the flu!

Years ago in my son’s preschool we noticed that the kids, who always washed their hands before snack, were still sharing colds way too often. We started washing up one extra time, just after entering the school, and illness rates dropped enormously. I applied that principle to my tours and noticed that when I reminded my clients to wash up, illness rates also dropped. It’s so simple. Wash your hands with soap and warm water while singing happy birthday to yourself, that’s the typical guideline. Sing aloud to make the locals smile!

And what about Purell? It’s the devil’s work, in my opinion. Purell doesn’t clean your hands, it (allegedly) sanitizes. It’s not effective unless it is used properly, and most people use way too much which makes their hands sticky…and dirtier than before they used it. Any tour where I see lots of people using Purell gets sick, I swear it, because people think it’s a substitute for washing. It’s not. Soap and water only!

Some people like to take vitamin supplement “bombs” to try and avoid illness while traveling. I don’t really know if it works, maybe it’s a placebo, but it sure makes me feel like I feel better. I like the Airborne line of vitamins that includes herbal supplements as well as vitamins. If I get a sniffle, I start taking them. I also take them a day or two before departure and while in transit to boost my immune system.

Drinking water is your other tool for staying healthy. People on vacation tend to forget to keep hydrated, often drinking more alcohol and coffee than they normally would. Those liquids don’t count as hydration, btw, sadly. Make sure you always have a water bottle, especially in hot places. I like the kind that clip onto my bag so that I’m constantly reminded to drink.

Get plenty of rest. It’s so hard when you have limited time in a place, but you must pace yourself. I once had a woman on tour who was determined to see everything. She’d get up super early and stay up late, walking so much that she literally exhausted herself. I had to call a doctor to come to her hotel room since she couldn’t get out of bed! Sleep and water can cure a truckload of ills.

I wish you luck staying well in your travels, although you won’t need it if you hydrate, sleep and wash your hands. As for me, I’m back to tending to my baby. Luckily we are staying with Italian friends who are wonderful with him. Hoping for a recovery for the last leg of his trip!


About sarahinitalia@yahoo.com

Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.


5 thoughts on “Travel Health

  • Sandy

    Ditto the comment about hand sanitizers! I think they give people a false sense of security. I never buy the stuff. I wash my hands as often as possible and carry/use anti-bacterial wipes. These are handy for wiping the airline trays, toilet seats, yukky surfaces in addition to your hands!

    As for meds, I always carry Imodium, benadryl, asprin and bonine. Additionally, I carry a blister pack with Nyquil & Dayquil; they are my go-to meds for colds.

  • Kate

    I came down with the flu one my first day in London a few years ago (symptoms hit on the tube ride from Heathrow to the hotel). Luckily, I was traveling with a friend who was very supportive and helped me get to an NHS clinic near our hotel. The hardest part was letting myself rest in the hotel a couple of days and then take it slow for the remainder of the trip, but it was the best thing for my health. If you’re sick, don’t push yourself to do things just because you feel like you’re wasting money laying in a hotel bed or you have a fear of missing out; you’ll recover much quicker with some rest.

  • Kim B.

    I’m so sorry that your son is sick. You’ve provided such good advice for all travelers with this post.

  • Laurel Barton

    My don’t-leave-home-without-it list includes cortisone cream, aloe vera, and Cal-a-Gel. Aloe can be a bit large to carry if you are flying, but it is readily available in Europe and terrific for sunburn and other skin irritations. Cortisone cream is my go-to for lots of itchy things that aloe vera doesn’t seem to help, and Cal-a-Gel is a wonder for bug bites! Takes the itch out of mosquito bites in a couple of minutes. It is available in small packets so easy to slip in pocket or purse.

    I also usually carry a few small packets of antibiotic ointment.

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