Travel Health Tips From My Death Bed

Staying healthy while you travel can make a big difference on how much you enjoy your trip!
Staying healthy while you travel can make a big difference on how much you enjoy your trip!

So the title is a little dramatic, but I truly feel like death, so I’m going to run with it.

I’ve come down with some kind of illness that I got at the very end of my trip to Indonesia, and it’s the sickest I’ve been in a long, long time. I can’t move from my bed–I feel like I have the flu (terrible sore throat and headache plus achy muscles), except thrown in the mix just to make sure that I really feel like shit (literally) is that I have some gastro-intestinal issues as well. I won’t go into the details, but I am looking mighty svelte after not eating anything but saltines for the last three days. #bestdietever

I finally took some antibiotics and am starting to feel human again/am able to type. As I’ve had some time to think about things while being bed-ridden, I will grace you with some of the thoughts and travel tips that have occurred to me while being metaphorically sucker punched from the end of my trip. Read on so you can avoid being like me right now:

1) If you’re going to a foreign country where the water isn’t clean, don’t think you’ve got a digestive system made of steel and try to chance it. Stick to bottled water (both for drinking and for brushing your teeth). It’s annoying, and often produces a huge amount of plastic bottle waste, but it only takes one terrible bout of traveler’s diarrhea to convince you that every bottle of mineral water is well worth it. Many hotels will give you free bottled water in places where the water isn’t safe to drink. Try to recycle when you can, or ask if places you’re staying have big water purifiers/water jugs that you can refill your bottles at.

2) Go to a health clinic or your doctor ahead of your trip and ask if they’ll give you a prescription of antibiotics (along with any other vaccines and medications you may need, depending on your destination) that you can take if you do get very sick. My friend that I was traveling with actually got sick before I did and she, too, felt debilitated before taking antibiotics. They will be incredibly handy to have if you need them, and filling a prescription for a $10 copay (or something comparable) at your U.S. pharmacy is likely less than you’d have to pay to buy antibiotics abroad.

3) I realized on this trip that as I get older, I’m less willing to sacrifice my health for eating very questionable looking street food. Don’t get me wrong–street food is still some of the best food you can find while traveling abroad, but be careful and wise about where and what you eat. If it looks as though the food might not be so clean, or has just been sitting out gathering bacteria, you can probably find another place to try that dish that may not have you regretting it for several days after. A good way to vet safe places to eat is whether or not other foreigners recommend it (that means they’ve eaten there and have suffered no terrible consequences) or if you can watch them prepare the food and know what’s going into your stomach.

4) Try to eat food that has been cooked. If not, and you need to get that mango smoothie (as I did), ask if they use mineral water to prepare the food and/or to make the ice. At first I felt a little sheepish, afraid that I was coming off like a completely uptight traveler that couldn’t just go with the flow–but once your health is compromised, your trip is, too. It’s much better just to be safe than sorry.

5) Keep a small bag of these travel med kit essentials that you can always throw into your suitcase on any trip:

Tylenol/aspirin and cold medicine: If on the chance that you do get a cold, the painkillers in cold medicines will be such a godsend–and drowsy cold medicine will be a lifesaver especially for flights.

Immodium and Pepto Bismol: No explanation is necessary here right?

– A handful of Band-Aids and a small tube of Neosporin (or other anti-bacterial ointment): It’s so easy to cut yourself on a hike or on some rocks or shells in the water. Best to keep it covered with some anti-bacterial ointment to avoid it becoming infected.

– A small bottle of hand sanitizer: This is just nice to have around, to use before you eat, or especially in places that don’t often have soap in the public bathrooms.

Sunscreen and mosquito repellent with DEET: Sunscreen is good to bring almost anywhere you go (Skin cancer people! It’s real! And too many people get it!) and mosquito repellent is necessary in almost all tropical countries, especially where there might be any risk of malaria, dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, or other mosquito-borne diseases.

6) Speaking of mosquitos, one thing I found invaluable in Asia was having a mosquito net. Shoutout to my friend for having the forethought to bring one with her. A lot of great (or dodgy) lodging options in other countries don’t have screened in windows or doors–think of those dreamy bungalows on palm-fringed beaches. Even when there are screens, somehow mosquitos get into the room. You’re left swatting off mosquitos buzzing in your ear in your sleep, burrowing under your covers, or having to apply DEET repellent to your face (yes, I have done this many times before and it sucks–not to mention probably not good for you). With a mosquito net, none of this is an issue and you can sleep so much better. It may be a bit of a luggage space suck, and it can also be pretty challenging finding a place to hang it, but a mosquito net will be a good investment, depending on where you’re going and the types of accommodations you’ll have.

7) Finally, don’t fly too close to the sun. Towards the end of my trip, I started to feel a little too healthy, a little invincible. I hadn’t gotten sick at all, and had mostly eaten all of the same things as my friend who had gotten sick. So I tempted fate and ordered fruit juices and ate a salad that probably wasn’t that great, and I wasn’t careful about sharing food with my friend who was sick. Of course my hubris cost me and I did wind up getting very ill. In the end, whether it was because I got a little careless or not, I’ve decided that next time I will continue to be vigilant about travel health precautions until I’m back at home, safe and sound.

So all of this is to say, taking care of your body and your health while you travel is super important, and it may have taken this sudden bout of illness for me to really realize it. Remember that the success of your trip–how much you’re able to do and the memories you make–is wholly dependent on your health and if you feel well enough to explore and travel. Take the proper precautions so that you can have all the fun you want, rather than be bed-ridden in an exciting new place.

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