A woman wears a protective face mask at international arrivals area at Guarulhos International Airport in Guarulhos. Picture: Reuters
A woman wears a protective face mask at international arrivals area at Guarulhos International Airport in Guarulhos. Picture: Reuters

Everything you need to know about being sick overseas

By Jon Shadel Time of article published Mar 13, 2020

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Washington - The fantasy of trekking around the world to find yourself never fails to inspire. But the reality is typically less glamorous. 

You're probably more likely to experience a food-borne illness or catch a cold on a plane than some life-altering epiphany - quickly turning a trip of self-discovery into a crash course in foreign health-care systems. As the novel coronavirus dominates the news cycle, staying healthy abroad is on everyone's minds.

Navigating the nuances of medical care in another country comes with challenges even when you're feeling well. If you're packing for a trip or are abroad now and looking for care, learn lessons from the travel pros: Taking a few precautionary steps and bookmarking helpful resources might keep an illness from entirely derailing your trip.

What can I do to prepare for potential illnesses?

You should schedule a pre-trip doctor appointment, says Lin Chen, president of the International Society of Travel Medicine (ISTM) and associate professor at the Harvard Medical School.

"During a time with emerging infections and outbreaks, it's absolutely a good idea to check with a medical professional - a travel medicine specialist or primary care provider - to prepare for a trip," she says.

An appointment at a travel clinic is crucial for more complicated itineraries, especially for trips to under-resourced corners of the world. These visits typically update your vaccines, give preventive tips tailored to your specific itinerary and equip you to self-treat any common health problems that might arise along the way. 

Chen also advises travellers to assemble a first aid kit. In addition to basics like bandages and antibacterial ointment, stock your kit with medications for diarrhea and allergic reactions, backup birth control, painkillers and a ready supply of your daily prescription drugs, which you may not have access to abroad.

Are there extra steps I can take to be ready for emergencies?

Take a moment to jot down your destination's emergency phone numbers and pinpoint the nearest hospitals with emergency rooms. 

What are the easiest ways to get care and find a doctor?

For minor and easily diagnosable symptoms, first consider a trip to the pharmacy, which could save you time and money. In many parts of the world, locals speak to pharmacists for many of the same ailments others would see a doctor to treat, from fevers and stomachaches to rashes and urinary tract infections.

But what if you don't want to leave your bed? Seeing a doctor for a minor illness might be as simple as picking up the phone. The concierge desk at a hotel can generally arrange for a doctor to visit guests directly in their rooms. Expect to pay more for the convenience of a house call.

Can travel insurance help pay for my medical expenses?

The right type of travel insurance can have your back in cases where your domestic health insurer does not cover you, but coverage varies quite a bit from plan to plan. For health expenses, make sure you buy a plan that includes adequate medical and emergency evacuation coverage.

Many popular plans offer medical coverage along with trip interruption and cancellation protection, all of which can help you recoup financial losses when a health-related incident forces you to abruptly change your itinerary. 

Can I get my prescription filled overseas?

There's nothing simple about getting prescriptions filled or replaced while abroad. And don't count on someone sending you extras; mailing prescriptions across borders breaks laws in many countries.

Ideally, you should plan ahead: Pack extra drugs. Check local regulations to ensure you can legally pass through customs with your Rx (a few countries including the United Arab Emirates and Japan prohibit some common prescriptions and over-the-counter medications), then bring a supply to hold you over if your trip gets unexpectedly delayed - a wise precaution at a time when mandatory quarantines remain a slight possibility for international travelers.

Will I be able to fly home with a contagious illness?

When you feel under the weather, your instincts might tell you to jump on the next plane home, but flying with contagious illnesses is not what experts advise. 

But even if you're one of the many travellers who don't voluntarily stay grounded, flying home might not be an option. Airlines have broad rights to refuse travel to passengers who seem too sick to board. In other words, if you're coughing up a storm near your departing gate, don't be surprised if an airline employee pulls you aside to inquire about your health. 

The Washington Post

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