What To Do When You Get Sick On Holiday

Richard Mckenna
11th August 2022

Getting sick is no fun at the best of times - and the best of times to get sick is obviously never going to be while you’re on holiday. But unfortunately, new places, new foods and the stress of travel can put extra strain on your immune system, while exciting new experiences can sometimes expose you to a little more risk than might be the case at home. So what should you do in the event that illness does strike and you wind up sick on holiday?

Before setting off

As we all know, prevention is the best medicine and a bit of forward planning never goes amiss. Firstly, make sure you’re equipped with a photocopy of the information page from your passport and a list of any medications that you take, your blood type, surgeries you’ve had and any allergies, as well as the contact information for your doctor and for your nearest and dearest - the more information you have handy, the easier it’ll be for everyone in the case of you being admitted to hospital. And if you have a pre-existing medical condition, take a letter from your doctor describing your condition and listing generic names for any prescription medicines you need. Make sure that any medications you take with you are in their original packaging to avoid confusion and check with the foreign embassies of countries you’ll be visiting that they’re legal there.

Ensure you’re fully informed about the healthcare situation at your destination and that you have any necessary documents and travel insurance, including insurance for getting you home in the event of a medical emergency that can’t be treated locally, especially if you’ve got physically risky activities like mountain climbing or diving planned while you’re there. Over the last two years, insurance companies have also started offering Covid insurance, which will cover your accommodation and medical costs in the event that you’re forced to remain away from home while you self-isolate.

Pack a first aid kit when travelling

It’s also a good idea to put together a little first-aid kit of your own containing basic medical essentials like painkillers, something for diarrhoea, an antiseptic, plasters for cuts and an antihistamine if you suffer from seasonal allergies. If you’re going to be staying somewhere a bit off the beaten track, you might also want to add some bandages, some hydrocortisone and a topical antibiotic.

If you’re going to a country where the risk of infectious disease is known to be higher, it’s especially important to look into what kinds of illnesses are common there – familiarity with their symptoms can help you decide if and when you might need medical care. And most important of all, make sure before traveling that you’re up to date with any necessary vaccinations.

While travelling / on holiday

Though one of the biggest worries about getting ill abroad is catching a virus or getting an infection, accidents and pre-existing medical conditions like heart disease are actually much more common causes of medical issues, so look after yourself and be aware of your personal safety. Be regular with any medication and take care when you’re walking or driving: remember that road etiquette may not be the same as you’re used to at home and that drivers might not give way to pedestrians or to other cars.

Stay hydrated while travelling

While you’re away, make sure you wash your hands frequently and carefully, and have hand wipes and hand sanitiser with you for times when you don’t have access to clean water. Staying hydrated is important, and doubly so when you’re a long way from home - make sure you’re drinking enough water (at least eight glasses a day, or more if you’re planning on spending a lot of time in the sun or exerting yourself physically) and watch out for dehydration symptoms like fatigue, dry mouth, light-headedness and muscle cramps. Also, make sure the tap water in the area where you’re staying is safe to drink - if you’re not certain, it might be best to stick with bottled water and avoid ice. And as holidays can be a time when we indulge a little more than usual, if you’re drinking alcohol, make sure you drink plenty of extra water throughout the day to compensate. Air travel can be especially dehydrating, so drink plenty of fluids while you’re en route to your destination as well as when you get there.

Be mindful of the foods you eat, especially uncooked fruit and vegetables and fresh juices, and consider whether it might be wiser to wash or prepare them yourself.

Skin protection is something travellers often neglect, but wherever you’re going, whether it’s a snowy mountain or a roasting hot desert, if there’s going to be a lot of sunlight your skin needs looking after. Use a sunscreen with a high SPF and make sure to reapply it at regular intervals, especially if you’ve been in and out of the water, and make sure you’re also equipped with a hat to shield your head from the sun and a pair of good sunglasses to protect your eyes.

Traveller's Diarrhoea

One of the most common illness afflicting travellers is known, appropriately, as ‘traveller's diarrhoea’, a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin condition that’s triggered by exposure to germs and bacteria (usually in food and water) your digestive system isn’t used to. If it strikes, the best thing to do is generally just stay in bed - a bit of rest will usually do the trick.

Beware of "Traveller's Diarrhoea"

Traveller's diarrhoea can dehydrate you more quickly than normal, though, so make sure you drink more water than you normally might, and if the symptoms are particularly severe, top up with electrolyte drinks and broth to compensate for the salts lost from your body. You’re probably also wise to stick to bland foods like bananas, white rice and toast for the duration, avoiding anything greasy or spicy, dairy products and alcohol, all of which can irritate your innards.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

There’s no way of knowing whether a person has a sexually transmitted disease just from looking at them, so the only way to be 100% sure not to catch one if you’re planning on being sexually active while on holiday is to avoid having sex with anyone whose health you’re not absolutely certain of.

Don't catch an STD on holiday

Either way, make sure you use a condom: though some sexually transmitted diseases can still be transmitted, using a condom definitely lowers the risks. This is especially something to remember on singles or "party" holidays when the drink is flowing and inhibitions (and caution) drop!

Keep an eye out for signs of illness

If you do get sick while traveling, it will most likely be with a stomach bug, a cold or the flu. Like traveller's diarrhoea, most illnesses require nothing more than a bit of bed rest and plenty of water until you feel better, but it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for signs of infection like fatigue, high temperature, chills and headaches. If you’re in a high-altitude location — meaning somewhere over 8,000 feet above sea level — symptoms like nausea, light-headedness and headaches may mean you’re suffering from altitude sickness.

Watch out for signs of illness

If the symptoms are severe, a doctor may prescribe a short course of medication, or tell you to take ibuprofen and drink more water if the symptoms are milder. The symptoms of sunstroke and heat exhaustion are similar and also include cramps and clammy skin, but lying down in a cool place with your feet raised and drinking lots of water while cooling your body, especially your armpits and neck, will usually have you feeling better within half an hour or so.

Know when to seek medical help

If you do find you’re experiencing more serious symptoms like feeling increasingly weak, fever or shortness of breath, especially if you’re traveling in countries where there have been outbreaks of infectious diseases, if you’ve been sick for a few days and don’t seem to be getting any better, or if you sprain an ankle or knee and are struggling to walk, don’t be a hero - seek medical assistance.

Know when to seek medical help

If you have health insurance, check your coverage with your health provider if possible, but prioritise getting help. And remember that when you do eventually see a doctor or are admitted to hospital, you have the right to refuse medical advice and to leave if you’re not comfortable with what’s happening.

So just to recap, the main things to remember are: be prepared, drink plenty of water, listen to what your body tells you - and make sure to have a holiday that you’ll remember for a long time. For more helpful travel tips, read our guides on whether you can use Bluetooth on a plane, or how to handle family stress while on holiday. And remember, whatever your plans and wherever you're going... just hoo it!

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