December 3, 2022

Alex o'Loughlin

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Condé Nast Traveler

What to Do If You Get Sick Abroad

Know that in certain countries, there could be restrictions on specific medications. “Make sure that you’re able to take the medications you need into the country where you’re traveling,” says Dr. Barnett. You can check with your destination’s embassy (as well as the embassies of countries that you may have layovers in) to make sure your medicines are allowed through customs.

Also, consider asking your doctor about preventative prescriptions or OTC medications for conditions that could pop up in your travels. Traveler’s diarrhea, for example, you can get anywhere, though it’s more common in some parts of Asia (not Japan and South Korea), the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, and Central and South America.

Malaria is another disease that doctors always want to minimize the chances of travelers contracting while in areas where the risk is high. There are different drugs, depending on your destination, that your doctor can prescribe to prevent it.

Identify a local source of healthcare

It’s always a good idea to alert your primary care doctor that you’re traveling overseas—or know how to contact them if you need to. If you have non-emergency questions (“could this be the flu?”) a telemedicine conversation could be possible and helpful if you’re not home, says Lin H. Chen, M.D. director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and immediate past president of the International Society of Travel Medicine.

In the case of an emergency or a more serious health issue, however, you will need in-person medical assistance no matter where you are. Both the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and the International Society of Travel Medicine have directories of walk-in travel clinics around the world. “It’s a good idea to have some idea in advance of where you would go if you fell ill,” says Dr. Barnett.

Consider travel insurance

“For average, healthy adults the most important thing you can probably do is to think about whether you need travel or evacuation insurance,” says Dr. Barnett.

While all plans differ, travel and evacuation insurance—available from many major insurance carriers and specialty travel insurance companies, too—provide a range of services, including things like telemedicine, paying for the cost of emergency transportation to the nearest adequate treatment center, or even paying for your return to the U.S. if deemed medically necessary. Travel insurance provides access to medical care and saves you money in the event of a serious medical problem.

Generally, whether or not you could benefit from travel insurance depends on factors such as the destination, the riskiness of the trip, and your health status (age, whether or not you have chronic diseases, or if you’re at an increased risk for illness), explains Dr. Chen.

“People should think about medical evacuation insurance if their activities are more high-risk for injury,” she says. “I think we underestimate the dangers from accidents and injuries.”

A few instances to definitely consider insurance: If you’re not familiar with a country’s medical system, if you suspect that the medical system is sub-optimal, or if you’re going somewhere remote and your trip includes risks—extreme environments like altitude or diving or outdoor adventure, says Dr. Chen.

Ultimately, what you decide about how much planning to do for health-related hypotheticals is up to you. But, says Dr. Barnett, “preparation in advance has a big payoff during your trip.” Erring on the side of over-planning for potential care in the event something goes wrong can bring peace of mind—and what’s a bigger travel payoff than that?