A few years ago in Cozumel, Mexico, my friend Susan made a late night run to the local emergency room with a severe respiratory illness. The stress of feeling terrible was compounded by the language barrier, by the fear of a substandard facility, and by not knowing exact directions. The vacation gods were on her side that night; a few hours later she and her husband returned reassured by a competent physician who spoke excellent English, and armed with strong antibiotics. Her bronchitis was a bump in the road on an otherwise excellent vacation.
Who plans on getting sick on vacation? If we did that, we’d just stay home, right? There’s no way to predict the mishaps that can take place, but there are a few ways to plan ahead and make such bumps in the road just a little smoother. Some of these steps to a healthy vacation require planning before you ever leave home; some depend on where you travel; and some are common sense practices that we all should be doing anywhere, whether traveling or staying home.
First, know your insurance policy. You pay them loads of money for the policy, so dig up that customer service number and give them a call. Find out if your coverage is different in the area you’ll be traveling, especially if you are going abroad–if so, consider purchasing short term medical or travel insurance. Ask whether you need approval for emergency care, and whether the insurance company offers a hotline for advice on symptoms (add this number to your phone’s contact list). Also, let them know the dates you’ll be traveling and the general area, so there are no surprises.
If you are heading out of the country, add the American embassy phone number to your contact list. They can supply information on physicians in your area, and help out in case you have a more serious emergency. If language is a barrier, buy a small travelers dictionary with a large section on words for body parts, maladies, and other terms you’d need to talk to a physician.
Second, pack like a seasoned adventurer: Stock the first aid kit with benedryl, immodium, pepto bismol tablets, and a thermometer. Add a tube of numbing antiseptic cream, butterfly bandages, and a tube of cream for bites and rashes. Pack a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer in your carry-on, and use it liberally.
Finally, in order to stay healthy on vacation, just remember all the advice your mom gave you when you went off to summer camp: Wear sunscreen! Don’t go barefoot! Stay hydrated! Eat your fruits and vegetables, but only if they are peeled or cooked! Tuck your pants into your socks when you hike—there might be spiders or ticks in the woods! Wash your hands before you eat! Get a good night’s sleep! Seriously, mom’s advice goes a long way toward staying healthy, especially in an environment teeming with germs just waiting to meet you.
And if, despite your best precautions, you find yourself seeking medical help in unfamiliar territory, just remember Susan. Chances are you’ll come home with the right medication, feeling reassured, and with a great story to tell.