Illness is an inevitable risk while traveling and as a result, I have had my fair share of health mishaps while on the road. .
In most cases, while incredibly stressful at the time, on the road illnesses have made for good laughs in retrospect. So, read on for my embarrassing, and sometimes scary, recaps of traveling illness (and how you can learn from them).
Thailand: The Face Rash
That morning I awoke in a sweltering hot hostel dorm, already sweating. But before I could lament the heat, I realized, I couldn’t open my left eye. I began to chip away at my encrusted eye, and in a couple minutes, voila! Full vision once again. That afternoon as my partner and I navigated a busy market somewhere in Bangkok, he looked at me funny, and asked “What’s wrong with your face?” I hadn’t thought about my eye mishap since that morning. Over the next couple days my eyes continued to crust overnight, and my skin erupted in a strange rash. I eventually got myself to a clinic, where the doctor said simply: your skin is reacting to the heat and pollution. Luckily, she was able to prescribe me an array of creams and oral medicine, and the rash cleared up in a couple weeks.
Take note of your environment, and listen to your body. Heat, pollution, and other environmental factors while traveling abroad often differ from what you are used to. It is important to keep in tune with your body and its reactions to these sometimes extreme environments.
Vietnam and Laos: Food Poisoning 101
I could write a chronicle devoted to food poisoning alone. While backpacking Vietnam and Laos, my partner and I experienced a several week long food poisoning disaster. It all began on a train to Hanoi, Vietnam. By the time we arrived in the city, he could barely walk. He spent almost four full days, bedridden. Scared for him, I frantically Googled hospitals. A trip to the pharmacy left me bawling on the street because the pharmacy personnel kept skipping me to serve locals instead. I had no clue how to say “food poisoning” in Vietnamese. It was a full week before he was recovered, and as soon as he was, I was struck. I think a delicious burger on Cat Ba Island is what did me in. I was left bedridden with vomiting, diarrhea and excruciating abdominal pain. It would be a full week, if not longer, before I had the strength to walk further than a couple blocks. The agony of these illnesses didn’t peak until Luang Prabang, Laos. We hopped on an early morning bus to a nearby waterfall. “I don’t feel very well” my partner said to me. I could see it in his eyes as he said this to me. Thirty minutes later and he was violently vomiting into a dry bag.
I think the only lesson here is to know that you will likely experience food poisoning at some point on your travels. If you can, be prepared! I always carry rehydration salts and Immodium in case of emergencies.
India: The Rabies Fear
India has the highest rates of rabies in the world. This tidbit of information combined with travel warnings galore and my love of animals awoke in me a fear of rabies. I couldn’t resist a litter of kittens one afternoon, and soon thereafter I discovered they’d scratched me, drawing blood. Cue the rabies fear. After a couple Google searches, which confirmed the unlikelihood but still possibility of a cat scratch transmitting rabies, I was in a panic. Rabies can take up to six weeks to manifest, and once it does, you cannot treat it. The disease has a nearly 100% death rate. Knowing this, I decided I had to get rabies shots. Otherwise I would spend 6 weeks worried about it. My partner and I went to a clinic close to Hampi, a small village in southern India. Most hospitals in India have dedicated clinics for rabies shots, and so I was quickly hooked up with the injection. I was provided a schedule which entailed a shot every 3-7 days.
Disclaimer: I have generalized anxiety, so my fear in this situation was admittedly more extreme than it would have been for others. That said, rabies is dangerous, and it is wise to read up on rabies risks when traveling to destinations that are moderate to high risk.
India: The Never-ending Flu
A week or two into backpacking India, I was struck with a horrible flu. I didn’t believe I was sick at first. How do you become sick in 40 degree heat? A couple days later I was faint and feverish. Hotel staff enlisted a young boy to walk me to a clinic nearby where I saw a doctor who prescribed me 8 different medications. One for sinus, one for fever, one for bacteria honestly I couldn’t tell you what they all were for. Combine this with the face rash I was still recovering from AND my daily anti-malarial, I was a walking pharmacy.
You don’t need winter weather to catch the flu. Carrying some flu and cold tablets with you is always a good idea!
Australia: A Close Call
Face rashes and food poisoning can become funny stories in retrospect, but serious incidents happen too. I was born with life-threatening allergies to peanuts and kiwis. These allergies can mean that I suffer “anaphylaxis” if I ingest those foods (or derivatives). Anaphylaxis is a serious reaction which can lead to death. Traveling with severe food allergies presents unique challenges because you are forced to eat unfamiliar foods. One night in Fremantle, Australia I was out for dinner in a pub. I ate a typical pub meal: chicken parma with salad. As per usual, I had told the staff about my allergies, and they told me the food would be safe. Barely 20 minutes after eating, I violently vomited and felt the hives begin. I knew what was happening. I was lucky to be with close friends, and they rushed me to the hospital. I was treated right away and quickly stabilized under the care of fantastic doctors. It was a terrifying experience, but in the end I was okay.
In a foreign country it sometimes feels like a hassle to seek medical attention. But never hesitate to go to the hospital, and always follow your gut feelings. If you feel something is wrong, don’t take the chance by not seeking medical help. I always travel with health insurance, and this incident is why. The hefty hospital bill showed up in my mailbox months later - because I had coverage, the insurance company paid the bill.
Scotland: A Chronicle of Diarrhea
After several months in Asia, I was excited to board my flight from Kathmandu, Nepal to Glasgow, Scotland. Fast forward 48 hours. I had a sickly feeling in my abdomen. I knew the feeling well. Food poisoning. That afternoon, I shit my pants in a cemetery. Horrified I exclaimed to my travel buddy (and lifelong friend) that I needed a bathroom, ASAP. “Suddenly smells gross here, doesn’t it?” He asked as we left the cemetery. For the entire 10 days we spent in Scotland, I had awful diarrhea. I had the pleasure of shitting my pants on our tour bus (twice) and I didn’t eat solid food for a week, unless Imodium counts? To this day I don’t know what caused this bout of food poisoning, but I suspect it hitched a ride from Nepal to Scotland with me.
Rehydration salts and Imodium are lifesavers. If you’re in a high risk situation, I recommend carrying toilet paper and underwear. Even in Scotland. Is this too much information?