What to Do If You Get Sick While Traveling — and How to Stay Healthy Before You Leave
Ordering a very nice bottle of wine at my favorite restaurant was a mistake; I said I wouldn’t drink. my head is heavy in my hands, pounding in pain, but I want to make the most of my trip and pretend that I wouldn’t rather be folded into the down comforter of my hotel bed than out on a Friday night in Austin.
This shouldn’t be happening: I wiped my airplane tray table with a Lysol wipe, Purell-ed my hands before dipping my fingers into the mini bag of pretzels, swallowed a Melatonin before bed the previous night to ward off any jet lag from my trip to Europe the week before. But by the next day, my limbs were sore, my brow sweating and my must-eat-five-meals-a-day travel appetite was totally gone — it’s obvious I’m sick. I have a fever and I am miserable. How did this happen?
Contagious germs are everywhere when you travel, but ignoring the symptoms of impending illness can destroy an entire itinerary. And actually being sick when you’re not at home can be completely miserable. I’m not someone who gets sick often, thus, I was totally unprepared to heal myself as I slumped over a should-be-healing bowl of posole in South Austin, desperate for something to speed up my recovery — it didn’t.
Winter illnesses like the flu or even a nasty cold can totally ruin a trip, so when it’s too late to prevent getting sick while traveling (despite your best efforts), acknowledge that you’re not one hundred percent, and do something about it. Headaches, muscle aches and even a stomach ache can all be signs of a flu or cold, says gastroenterologist Roshini Rajapaksa. Don’t discount your abnormally sore arms as a byproduct of lifting that too-heavy carry-on. A cough, runny nose and sore throat can also be signs of impending illness.
The easiest, and perhaps most important thing you can immediately do to help your body is stay hydrated. Drink water and avoid alcohol, which “will suppress your immune system so it’s harder to get better quickly,” says Dr. Rajapaksa. “And stay out of the sun, which can make you very dehydrated.”
Preventing overexertion should get top billing on your itinerary when cold or flu symptoms become apparent — rest is essential in healing your body. As difficult as it may be, clear out your itinerary to cozy up in that fluffy hotel bed. “Sleep is really important,” says Dr. Rajapaksa. Splurge on a movie rental, you may be there a while. Craig Webb, Area Medical Director at MedExpress, also recommends taking advantage of the free hot water in your hotel room. “Recuperate with a warm shower or bath to help clear your sinuses, drink hot tea to soothe your sore throat and take a nap,” he suggests. “Your body — and others — will thank you for it later.”
Still not feeling better after your in-room relaxation attempts? Help can easily be on the way. “If you’re in a hotel or resort, they often have a hotel doctor who can be called to see you and deal with minor things, and maybe give you medicines to help you feel better,” says Dr. Rajapaksa. “If you feel very severe, go to urgent care or the emergency room.” And don’t procrastinate: Medicines can be prescribed early on in the flu “to lessen the severity and shorten the duration,” says Dr. Rajapaksa.
Dr. Webb also recommends enlisting the concierge to help with any and all needs, be it making an appointment with a local doctor, procuring electrolytes to keep you hydrated or ensuring you receive the other items you need to help you get well.
Being away from the comfort of your microwave or favorite sick day delivery place can be unsettling, and the thought not being able to prepare food can be a challenge. When it comes to eating, Dr. Rajapaksa recommends seeking out bland foods and avoiding raw foods and dairy. Try ordering plain rice, pasta or broth, and if room service doesn’t have a decent option, see if prepared groceries or basic restaurant foods can be delivered to your accommodations.
Even if you’re that person who doesn’t get sick, your strong immune system can be as reliable as getting a standby seat on a flight, especially when you’re in a new, unfamiliar environment and exposed to new germs and bacteria. Always travel with your insurance card — and even a copy of that information, to be safe. And take a few minutes, especially when traveling abroad, to flag important emergency numbers, reliable urgent care centers and top rated hospitals near where you’re staying, just in case sickness hits.
Packing a small emergency kit will also be useful should you need pain and symptom relief in a pinch. Dr. Rajapaksa recommends a kit with ibuprofen (Motrin) or acetophenone (Tylenol) as well as Pepto Bismol, which can help with stomach-related illness and contains antibacterial properties which help fight off an infection. World traveler and critical care nurse Leslie Medley never travels without a Z-pack (Zithromax), which is “a broad-spectrum antibiotic,” as well as Vitamin C supplements, Imodium, hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes, to ward off and help cure any maladies that may arise. Though they seem common, these items can be difficult to find outside of major cities or in foreign countries, and having them on-hand, especially when you’re too ill to procure them yourself, can be hugely beneficial.
While you may be eager to get home while your nose is leaking all over that hotel remote, flying back to comfort may not be the best idea. “If you’re very congested, being on an airplane may make you feel worse,” says Dr. Rajapaksa, pointing out that the air pressure can create unpleasant symptoms. Airlines will typically charge a fee to rebook your flight, but that fee should be worth not extending your illness — and infecting other travelers.
Want to stay healthy for your next trip? Dr. Rajapaksa emphasizes, “Take a probiotic regularly to help your immune system be more resilient.” Just think of it as a wellness boost to your frequent flier miles and you'll feel gold status in no time.