What to Do If You Get Sick While Traveling

Travelers hope they don't end up coming down with an illness while on a trip, spending more time than they'd like in their hotel room's king-size bed. But it happens, and relatively frequently.

According to a recent survey commissioned by World Access, a travel-insurance and assistance company, more than 35 percent of business travelers said they or a colleague have become seriously sick or injured while away from home.

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Forty-three percent of the nearly 4,000 adults surveyed said their top concern about getting sick or injured while traveling is getting the right medical attention. Other concerns included getting word to their loved ones and colleagues about their condition and having the proper insurance coverage to receive the necessary care.

With some preparation, however, travelers can easily put some of those worries to rest.

Perhaps most importantly, a traveler is wise to take a good look at health-insurance details before leaving home, said Ed Perkins, contributing editor of SmarterTravel.com.

Also make sure insurance and physician phone numbers come along for the ride.

"Find out if there are any geographic limitations and what you're supposed to do" in the event you become sick while out of town, he said. "If your coverage does not apply to where you might be traveling, it's probably a good idea to buy travel insurance that includes medical benefits."

And know the protocol to use the benefits — whether it's to call the home office, find the nearest clinic or otherwise — in advance.

Don't assume that you're covered if you're traveling domestically, either.

"Some insurance plans do not cover you if you're more than 100 miles from home," said Emily Porter, spokeswoman for World Access. The company is a member of Mondial Assistance, which is part of the Allianz family of companies.

If there are deficiencies in coverage, supplemental travel insurance is relatively inexpensive, said Peter Evans, executive vice president for InsureMyTrip.com, a Web site that allows consumers to compare travel-insurance rates. When traveling abroad, evacuation coverage — which pays for transport to the area where care is to be provided — is also a wise investment.

Travel-insurance costs will vary by age, coverage limit and length of trip. A young, healthy person would likely be able to purchase $50,000 of coverage for $12 a week, he said.

Ill timing

In the event that a traveler does need non-emergency medical attention while out of town, it's best to first call the insurance company, Perkins said.

"Insurance companies get pretty fussy if you make money commitments before they steer you," Perkins said. So ask the company for direction on your next step.

A traveler who gets the green light to go to the nearest doctor might consider asking for a recommendation from the hotel's concierge. A good-size hotel may have a doctor on call or at least a physician reference, Perkins said.

Domestically, hotels may direct guests to a service such as Boston-based Inn-House Doctor, which will send a physician to a patient's hotel room, treating everything from upper respiratory problems to conjunctivitis, said Walter Krause, president of the company. A patient can often speak with a doctor within five to 10 minutes of calling, he said, and a doctor can be on site within an hour.

"A lot of insurance companies like us because our fees are better than an emergency room," he said. Patients pay for the service upfront then get reimbursed for the visit through their insurance company, Krause said.

If traveling in a foreign country where language is an issue in requesting and receiving the proper care, insurance companies will sometimes have hotlines to help — so travelers should make sure the phone numbers make it into their wallets before they leave home.

Another resource for finding a doctor abroad is the U.S. Embassy in the country, said Dr. Joan Pfinsgraff, director of health intelligence for iJET. IJET monitors health concerns and other threats around the world for corporations, also providing their clients' travelers with an emergency-assistance hotline.

International travelers can also contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers, Pfinsgraff said. The organization maintains a network of English-speaking doctors to assist those traveling abroad.

A travel checklist

Ideally, travelers should aim to protect themselves from getting sick in the first place.

During cold and flu season, one of the best ways to keep healthy — or help keep a cold from spreading to others — is by frequent hand washing, said Dr. Neil Sikka, assistant professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University and director of outreach services for Inn-House Doctor.

Hand washing is especially important while traveling by airplane. "When you fly, you're trapped in a closed space with viruses and infections," he said. World travelers expect they'll need certain immunizations for trips outside the country, but it also isn't a bad idea to make sure routine vaccinations are also up to date — regardless of the destination, Pfinsgraff said.

"Travelers are frequently in large crowds," she said, so during the winter months it's also probably wise to consider a flu shot before traveling. Those with medical conditions should make sure they're stable before leaving, Pfinsgraff said. And travelers who take medications should pack enough of a supply to last the entire trip and a few days more.

Take a concise list of medications — in case of emergency, the information could greatly help a medical worker, Sikka said. In fact, those with heart conditions might even consider carrying a copy of their EKG in a wallet or purse, he added.

Consider taking along a traveler's health kit, with supplies including pain relievers, bandages, antibacterial cream, mosquito repellent, sunscreen and a thermometer.

Some diseases won't have an effect in the first days of infection, Pfinsgraff said. Those who show symptoms after returning home should inform their physician of their travels.

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