Published September 24, 2011
Getting sick on your vacation is a bummer. From bug bites to food poisoning, it can be a tricky and frightening experience to find good medical care while traveling.
Michelle Olson from Fresno, Calif. said she was carrying her baby into her hotel room in Playa del Carmen, Mexico when she realized red ants were attacking her.
“It felt like shots all over my legs,” Olson said. “It had that stinging feeling. It looked like a bunch of mosquito bites with scabs that were bloody.”
Olson says she able to be treated at a first aid office at the resort where she was staying. But Dr. Marvin Cooper, an internal medicine specialist at New York City Travel Clinic, says sometimes it’s not so easy, especially when you are traveling in a foreign country.
“If you’re really sick, you can sometimes call the American Embassy and they will recommend a doctor in the area,” Cooper said. “Sometimes, the concierge will make a recommendation. That’s a little tricky because sometimes they’ll give you a great recommendation - and sometimes they’ll get paid off by local doctors.”
Cooper also recommends looking up a local doctor on the International Society of Travel Medicine website - which lists specialists by country and city.
But even before you go anywhere, doctors and travel experts say a little planning is important.
Marybeth Bond, travel expert and founder of GutsyTraveler.com recommends taking extra caution when it comes to protecting against pesky germs that lurk in many places when traveling. “You can start avoiding germs from the time you get to the airport,” Bond said. “Err on the side of being overly clean with hand sanitizer.”
That's just the start of the list of items Bond encourages people to pack, including plenty of over-the-counter cures for stomach problems, such as Pepto Bismol tablets, Alka-Seltzer tablets, Tums and Imodium.
In addition to pain relievers, Bond says comfortable shoes and mole skin can be crucial.
“I carry it in my wallet because when you start to feel a blister – you want to put mole skin on right when you feel it,” Bond said. “It prevents rubbing and doesn’t come of easy like band aids.”
Like unexpected blisters - being exposed to new foods and environments can sometimes cause unusual allergic reactions. “I carry Benadryl all the time,” Bond said. “It can help with spider bites.”
Earlier this month, journalist Jana Winter from New York City was in the jungle in Belize when she realized her ankle was really swollen after cave tubing.
“It was like four tennis balls around my ankle,” Winter said. “I’ve gotten sick traveling before. It’s not like I don’t go out of the states, but this is by far the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me.”
After seeing a doctor at a local pharmacy on the island of San Pedro, Winter said she learned she had been bit by yellow flies. Winter said the doctor prescribed her some antibiotic and anti-inflammatory medications.
“It was the best 42 American dollars I’ve ever spent,” Winter said. “I can imagine it would have been a lot worse if I wasn’t on the medicine.”
But not every injury can be treated at a reasonable price –and often medical expenses can skyrocket -- busting your budget and derailing your trip.
Bond says check with your health insurance provider before you leave because many plans don’t cover injures or illnesses while you’re out of the country. She recommends investing in travel medical and emergency evacuation insurance.
“Getting a helicopter to come get you could cost $10,000 if you’re in a car accident in Tanzania and you’re worried about blood transfusion,” Bond said.
She says the premium will depend on how much your trip costs and the type of plan, but says the insurance can be reasonable and is worth the peace of mind.
Sara Sparhawk of Palo Alto, Calif. was touring Machu Picchu in Peru when she experienced altitude sickness. She says her friends were able to find medicine at a local pharmacy, but Sparhawk, who didn't have travel medical insurance on the trip, realized that she never wanted to be without travel medical insurance again.
Even though she didn’t have to use it, Sparhawk was glad she purchased it last year before heading out on a three month trip around the world.
“After being sick in Peru, hearing about natural disasters happening right and left, knowing that I was going to visit third world countries, and expecting to do some adventurous activities, I wasn't going to take my chances of getting hurt and not being able to get the help I needed without breaking the bank,” Sparhawk said. “I was pleasantly surprised at how affordable additional insurance was and it was definitely worth the extra cost for a little peace of mind.”
But some injuries encountered on vacation can lead to happy endings – or at least to a greater understanding of how to deal with existing conditions, as Ashley Smith from Washington, D.C. found out.
She says she broke out in a painful rash and felt sick to her stomach while on a cruise in the Caribbean in 2008. She was treated by a doctor onboard the ship who told her she probably had an allergic reaction to her sunscreen.
The following February while at Disney World in Fla., Smith says she had the same reaction, even while using a special sensitive sunscreen.
“I explained to the doctor what the diagnosis had been on the cruise - a sunscreen allergy - and he said, no, it actually looked like a sun allergy,” Smith said.
Smith says by learning what she’s really allergic to and how to prevent it allows her to better enjoy her trips.
“Now when I travel and know I'm going to be in the sun for more than an hour or two, I prime my face with the topical steroid the day before - as suggested by my dermatologist - and try to stay in the shade as much as possible,” Smith said.
“Even traveling in the Caribbean, I've been able to adjust and still have a great time on vacation.”