In case of emergency, call 911, or the foreign equivalent of H.E.L.P. For non-urgent matters, dial yourself.
When mild health issues crop up, such as a persistent cough or food poisoning, you have the power to self-heal. But you’ll need the proper instruments.
“If people have the skills to self-treat for minor respiratory illness or diarrhea,” says Kozarsky, “it’s sort of empowering.”
Before you depart on your travels, the CDC consultant recommends walking up and down the pharmacy aisles, tossing in necessary items. Her kit, for instance, might include an anti-diarrheal such as Imodium, a painkiller such as Advil, bandages, steroid cream, cough medicine (tablet or capsule), a mild laxative and sleep aids. If you’re allergic to bee stings, pack an EpiPen; if pollen or other allergens tickle your nose, stock up on Claritin or another antihistamine. Also throw in extras of any medications you normally take at home, in case you lose a few or your return is delayed. And don’t forget the Cipro or Zithromax, prescribed antibiotics that can resolve a slew of stomach and respiratory ailments caused by bacteria. (Ask your doctor for instructions on use.)
If you’re parachuting into an exotic locale with such potential risks as malaria or typhoid, visit a travel health clinic for counseling and possibly an armful of vaccinations and a mouthful of medications. (The International Society of Travel Medicine manages the Global Travel Clinic Directory, a list of facilities around the world.) Travelers with chronic diseases or conditions should also consult with a travel health provider and share all the details of their trip, including the altitude. Thin air can bedevil folks with compromised respiratory systems, for example.
Despite extreme vigilance — frequent hand-washing, drinking only bottled water, abstaining from raw fruits and veggies — pesky viruses and bacteria may still scale your fortified walls. But if you’re patient, they’ll leave.
For example, food poisoning symptoms should pass within six to 12 hours, and untreated diarrhea typically improves within five days. In addition to taking intestinal medicine, sick individuals should stay hydrated with “safe” liquids, doctors say; serious dehydration can land you in the hospital.
Fever can be trickier to self-diagnose. If you are traveling in a malaria-free area, Shlim says to wait a day or so; if the fever exists, seek medical attention. However, if you are in a region where the mosquito-borne disease persists, hang up your stethoscope and flag down a real doctor.
Is there a doc in the host country?
There’s a right way and a wrong way to receive medical care while traveling internationally. Here is an example of how you should not do it.
A year ago in Havana, I was hobbling around the Cuban capital with a Snuffleupagus-size appendage puffy with fire-ant bites. (The accident — stepping on the insects’ low-rise home — had occurred in southern Florida.) I didn’t know how to find medical attention in a communist country that didn’t accept credit cards or provide ATMs. At the urging of another American traveler, I visited the hotel infirmary, where a nurse flipped me on my stomach and poked me with a needle. I spent the remaining days with an itchy, swollen foot and a throbbing posterior. For all I knew, she’d shot me up with vodka.