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The Scary World of Travel (4th ed): Medical Troubles while Travelling

Updated: May 6, 2023

We travellers don't want to think about it but we might need medical attention while on our much-anticipated journeys. Environmental changes, activity levels, unfamiliar living conditions, diet, and jet lag can affect anyone. Uneven pavement, an adventurous excursion, or just plain clumsiness can lead to scrapes, bruises, sprains, and various sore muscles. Dehydration, injuries, and infectious diseases are greater risks as we age and/or live with chronic conditions. Whether our ailment is fairly mild or a catastrophic accident, we need to be prepared and have a plan to get effective care. Most likely, we will experience a temporary health blip easily resolved with a simple remedy such as adding electrolytes to our water, taking a pill for pain or a tablet to settle an upset tummy. Sometimes, a developing rash, infection, or other ailment will need prompt medical intervention to avoid bigger problems. In the case of a catastrophic event, immediate details will likely be out of our hands and locals and emergency responders will take over the immediate concerns. If a traveller is unresponsive but carrying identification, their embassy will likely be contacted.

No one wants to spend part of their vacation time or budget on medical care so being prepared before travel is an important part of your planning. Most government websites have excellent resources and suggestions specific to their citizens and the destination point. The Canadian Government has published an excellent resource called Well on your way. The UK, USA, and French government websites have similar resources.

Be Informed/Research Your Destination

Take time to find out your destination's healthcare infrastructure, especially if travelling to more rural locations. Know what medications are permitted/forbidden -- don't assume your prescription medications will be allowed into another country. Take time before booking your ticket to get country-specific travel health notices, information on specific diseases and health conditions, and recommendations from your country's website. While you are on your country's website, register your trip with your government to get notified of significant issues. In Canada use: Registration of Canadians Abroad and in the USA: STEP Smart Traveller Enrolment Program. Over the years, I have received notices not only about health outbreaks and changing vaccination requirements but also information about hurricanes, strikes, and political instability.

I am allergic to eggs and penicillin. I must learn how to communicate that in the local language before I eat anything. I do a great mime of clutching my throat and gasping that gets the message across if my pronunciation fails me. I used to make my student travellers write the local word for their allergy on a card to give to servers. Learn how to identify and label your condition or adaptive request in the local language. My British Columbia health records are available through a secure government health app. which allows me to share with a foreign doctor. Your health provider may provide a similar service or your family doctor can provide a list.

Buy Travel Insurance

It's important to purchase the best private travel health insurance you can afford whenever you leave your health jurisdiction and hope that you will never need to use it. Your regular policy is very unlikely to cover foreign medical fees. Check out this post on what to look for in travel insurance. Read the small print of the policy before purchase. Depending upon the policy you purchase, there are often specific steps that the insurance company will want you to take. Make sure you know exactly what is covered and for how much, how often, and the maximum length of a trip. I always make sure that my policy includes medical evacuation to get me back home quickly and comfortably.

Your credit card might include some travel insurance. My credit card provides trip cancellation/interruption, lost luggage, car rental insurance, and some travel medical coverage. The agreement specifies that only fees paid with the card are covered and limits my length of stay. After a lot of research and reading dozens of policies and hundreds of online reviews, I choose to purchase a separate annual travel policy.

Consult a Travel Medicine Doctor

If available in your area, visit a travel medicine clinic to discuss your itinerary and get personalized advice, immunization and preventative medicines. These clinics are specialized and is likely to have much more information about foreign health concerns than your family doctor. Before heading into a specific area of the Amazon, I was required to have a Yellow Fever shot. These vaccines are often in very short supply worldwide. The only place I could get these was in the travel clinic. Before travelling to Indonesia, the Japanese encephilitis shot was strongly recommended. I have also been supplied with various booster vaccines, medications for altitude sickness, anti-diarrheal pills, and excellent advice to protect against bug bites and poor sanitation.

Stock Up On Meds

Get a full refill of any prescription medicines you require. Ask your doctor to give you a paper copy of a prescription with the generic and brand name and dosage to carry for backup. As mentioned earlier... make sure your medications are permitted in your destination country. Having documentation can help facilitate treatment.

All airport security rules require passengers to have all medications in the original, labelled containers. My pharmacist will make up blister packs that include all the appropriate labelling. Many travellers repackage their meds into pill boxes and have never had an issue at security. I think it's better to just follow the rules. I don't think it's worth the risk of losing my meds at screening.

Print Your Documents/Wear a Medical Alert Tag

Have a copy of your insurance documents saved on the cloud, on your devices, and maybe even a paper copy with you. A backup copy can be left with your emergency contact. Make sure you have the contact phone numbers. It's a good idea to carry a card or wear a tag that identifies any important conditions, allergies, or medications as well as emergency contact information. I think a tag is essential regardless if you are at home or travelling.

I wear a RoadID tag attached to my Fitbit strap with my medical and contact information.

Medical Care

Despite being well-prepared, we may need to seek assistance. Look for a green cross outside to identify a pharmacy in many countries. For non-urgent care, often the first stop may be a pharmacy. Learn the local word for a pharmacy so you can identify them as you travel. Pharmacists are very well-trained and will be able to provide non-controlled medications. They will recognize the generic names of medications and they know the local doctors. Many have done their education in English-speaking countries and will be able to communicate with you well.

ATB#1 got excellent support from a Greek pharmacist who arranged an appointment with a local English-speaking doctor and even walked with us to make sure we arrived at the correct location.

Major tourist hotels, resorts, and cruises often have in-house physicians or will be able to arrange appointments with local doctors who will treat travellers. I developed an abscess under one of my teeth during a recent trip to Mexico and was able to see a doctor and get a prescription filled without leaving the resort. I was charged a hefty fee (from a Canadian point of view) but my insurance company has already accepted my claim and is processing the reimbursement.

For urgent care, the best option is the local hospital. Ambulance services aren't as common in many countries and you may need to arrange your own transportation.

In an emergency, your embassy can provide many services and supports including health care providers, contact assistance, translation, transportation and, in some circumstances, temporary financial loans. This information will be on your country's travel advisory pages. Take time to read the information before travel.

Keep Your Records

If you find yourself receiving medical care abroad, be sure to keep copies of any receipts or invoices for hospital care or tests. In most cases, the insurer will require proof of your out-of-pocket expenses when you file a claim. Make sure the document records the treatments, diagnosis, and costs.

Follow Up

Don't forget to follow up with your family doctor upon your return, especially if you were hospitalized. Hopefully, you will never experience a major medical event while you are travelling but it is wise to be prepared by doing your research, buying the correct insurance for your needs, and knowing how to access medical care while away.


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