8 Tips for Solo Travelers to Stay Healthy

A recent article in the New York Times sadly recounts how a 23-year old Peace Corps volunteer died during his assignment in rural China. Even though he sought care from a Peace Corps-approved doctor, he was not given the proper medical treatment and he died on his way to the hospital, possibly as a result of complications due of acute gastroenteritis, including massive dehydration.

Truly Alone

Erin Sick, photo by GoErinGoReading this tragic story brought back memories of the many times I was sick on the road (Portugal, Thailand, Peru, Laos, Uganda, Australia…just to rattle off a few.) It reminded me of how vulnerable we are when we’re alone, with very little (if any) grasp of the local language, no knowledge of local medical practices, a new culture, and far away from anyone or anything familiar.

Even the smallest ailment is compounded when traveling solo since you have no one to act as your advocate, to notice changes in your condition, or to go and get help—in the form of medicine, a doctor, or simply to make a phone call for you.

When traveling on your own you’re incredibly dependent upon the advice of others. And, despite best intentions, the help you receive may simply not be good enough. After traveling to more than 90 countries, much of it by myself, I follow a pretty strict regimen when it comes to my physical health:

Before You Go

1) Load up on Coverage. Before each trip I buy medical insurance. Thankfully, international health coverage is fairly inexpensive. Here’s a list of all the coverage I got before I left on my extended trip – 5 policies in all.

2) Take a Medical Kit. I carry some basics in a medical kit, including antibiotics, ibuprofen / anti-inflammatories, allergy medications, sea sickness pills, plus topical antibiotic cream and band aids. I don’t take a lot, but enough to get me to a mid-sized city to get further treatment.

A basic medical kit is even more important when traveling deep into the wilderness. For instance, as an adventure sports enthusiast, many times I find myself off the beaten path. Like the time I had an allergic reaction to sand flea bites during a multi-day kayaking trip deep in the fiords of New Zealand. I ended up popping large quantities of Benadryl.

3) Immunize. I’ve heard many stories while on the road of crafty travelers having an authorized notice explaining that they don’t have their shots due to religious convictions. For me, I make sure all my shots are up to date, checking months in advance to make sure I have the time to get an entire series if necessary. Here’s where I turn for the latest in global health alerts.

Portugal Pharmacy, photo by GoErinGoOn the Road

4) Consult your Embassy. If you do get sick on the road, turning to your country’s embassy or consulate is a good first step. At the very least the recommended medical teams will speak your language, breaking down one of the barriers to getting appropriate treatment. Many will have also attended medical school in your home country and so there will be a familiarity with suggested health practices.

Several times I turned to the U.S. embassy when I needed to find a doctor – in Israel, in Uganda, and in Cambodia. Your embassy will either have a listing on their website or you can call or visit the embassy in person to get this info. The lists aren’t “pre-approved” per se, but these are the doctors suggested for the Embassy staff.

5) Avoid Rural Medical Clinics. In developing nations many local medical clinics are rife with communicable diseases like TB and hepatitis. They are often under-funded and lack the basic medical supplies, such as gloves, sterile needles, and clean blood supplies, that are necessary to treat you according to international health standards.

When sick in rural Uganda, I drove by the local medical clinic twice. With a bad case of parasites, I was tempted, but both times elected not to go in. Instead I cut this leg of the journey short and traveled 4+ hours to attend an Embassy-suggested clinic in the capital.

6) Listen to Local Authorities. For the record, I don’t insist on medical personnel with Western medical degrees. In fact, I think many local doctors will be far more likely to recognize and properly treat local diseases.

For instance, it can be much more dangerous when you’ve returned to your home country and then are stricken with an ailment. Your local doctor may not be up on tropical diseases, for instance mistaking malaria with the common flu.

Leave the Country

7) Evacuate. While in Laos I was suffering from food poisoning for more than a week. When I wasn’t getting rehydrated, I thought my food poisoning might be something more serious and so I decided to take action and evacuated myself.

Butter Chicken MealI got on a bus to take me from Laos (one of the 20 poorest countries in the world with very poor healthcare infrastructure) to Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia. Here’s I sought blood tests to rule out other more serious ailments like malaria or dengue. Luckily it was only food poisoning that could be treated with antibiotics otherwise my next stop would have been Bangkok to seek fully trained medical personnel.

8) Act Quickly. Don’t wait too long. When I was very young and traveling in Thailand, I had food poisoning (again) and didn’t have the money to see a doctor. After 3 days of spitting up green bile, I had no choice.

I went to a local resort and saw their in-house doctor, who gave me a prescription that cured me immediately. Most times the symptoms will not just go away and the longer you wait, the more likely you are to have complications (and greater misery).

Heal Thyself

The bottom line is that when you’re traveling solo, no one is going to take care of you. Sick or not, you must be strong enough to take care of yourself. If in doubt, get medical treatment right away so you can nip your ailment in the bud.

Most importantly, follow you own counsel. You know how bad you feel. You know when your body’s not responding to medication. You know when something’s not right. Your health is your own responsibility.

If you are in doubt about medical treatment, stop your travels and take the necessary steps to ensure your health. Thailand will still be there tomorrow.

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This entry was posted on Friday, August 1st, 2014 and is filed under On the Road.

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