What to Do If You Get Sick on Vacation

By Marcy Lovitch · April 27, 2023 · 11 minute read

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What to Do If You Get Sick on Vacation

No one wants to get sick while on vacation, but sometimes, the unexpected happens. Not only can falling ill on your vacation throw a major wrench in your travel plans, it can be stressful and scary, especially if you’re in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and medical facilities may not be what you are used to back home.

The best thing you can do before you leave is to prepare in case you do get sick on vacation. Knowing what items and information to bring with you, where you can seek a doctor’s care, and how you might pay for unforeseen medical expenses can help provide peace of mind.

Read on to learn:

•   What illnesses are going around these days

•   Important items to bring with you in case you get sick on your trip

•   Where to turn for help and medical care if you fall ill

•   Self-care tips you can use if you experience sickness on vacation.

What’s Going Around These Days

Whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally, you’ll want to know what illnesses are circulating in your destination so you can protect yourself. For example, one of these precautions may be making sure you get the appropriate vaccinations or that your usual shots are completely up to date. That can help prevent you from getting sick on vacation, because who wants to spend their week at the Outer Banks or Oahu coughing and sneezing?

Currently, there are some illnesses currently going around that all travelers should be aware of:

•   COVID-19. Though we may not be hearing about coronavirus in the news every day, it’s still circulating around the world. According to the World Health Organization, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, continues to evolve and circulate.

•   Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV). This common respiratory virus, which typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms, has been on the rise in the U.S. for over a year. In some cases, RSV can cause serious lung infections, which is particularly dangerous for infants, older adults, and people with serious medical issues.

•   Norovirus. The very contagious norovirus causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Talk about ruining a vacation! Cases have increased in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. this year. You can catch norovirus from eating or drinking contaminated food or water or by touching a contaminated surface like a light switch or doorknob and then touching your mouth with unwashed hands. This germ has been known to circulate on cruise ships.

•   Polio. There are some global destinations where polio is circulating, including Canada, Israel, and the U.K. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that, before embarking on international travel, people should be up to date on their polio vaccines. They also advise that adults in the U.S. who previously completed the full, routine polio vaccine series receive a single, lifetime booster dose of polio vaccine.

•   Strep A. If you’re traveling with children or teens, you’ll want to know about Strep A, a very contagious infection in the throat or tonsils caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria. Strep A most commonly causes strep throat but can also cause skin infections and scarlet fever, among other more severe infections. According to the CDC, cases of Strep A have increased among children in the U.S. A rise in Step A cases has also been reported since late last year in Australia and some European countries.

Why You May Get Sick on Vacation

Have you ever wondered, “Why do I get sick on vacation?” There are some very good reasons why you may start to feel under the weather or contract some type of sickness while traveling.

•   As mentioned above, if you travel to a destination where a certain illness is circulating, you might pick it up.

•   The fatigue and jet lag you may experience while traveling can potentially impact your ability to fight off various germs. According to the Sleep Foundation, lack of sleep can also affect your immune system, making you more susceptible to getting sick.

•   You can also get sick on vacation from eating foods or drinking water that may be contaminated. Doing so can result in traveler’s diarrhea and other serious conditions such as E. Coli and Hepatitis A.

•   You might dine on unfamiliar food that’s spicy or cooked differently than you are used to. This can cause gastrointestinal distress.

•   The risk of injuries may go up while you’re vacationing. Being unaware of your surroundings, engaging in higher levels of physical activity, or driving an unfamiliar rental car can all lead to accidents.

Things to Do Before You Leave

Besides the usual pre-vacation chores, such as packing and booking a dog or cat sitter (unless you’re traveling with your pets), you’ll want to add some items to your to-do list. Before you head off on your getaway, consider taking these steps to ensure you’ll have a healthier trip:

•   Check in with your doctor. Make sure you’re up to date with all of your vaccines and you get any mandatory immunizations if you’re visiting a country that requires them. If you have underlying health conditions, discuss with your doctor and get any necessary clearance from them that it’s okay to travel. Are you traveling with kids? Do the same with the pediatrician.

•   Contact your health insurance company. If you’re traveling abroad, find out if your plan covers any medical expenses you may incur in another country.

•   Look into getting traveler’s insurance. ​​This type of insurance protects travelers against any financial losses occurring during their trip. It can even protect you before you travel, for instance if you have an emergency, such as getting seriously ill.

You can find traveler’s insurance through individual companies, travel agents, and insurance comparison sites, but you may also be able to get it through your credit card. Many cards offer credit card travel insurance, often for free, to cover any medical expenses or trip mishaps such as lost luggage or an unexpected trip cancellation. Check with your credit card company to find out if it’s offered and what it covers.

Some travel credit cards and airline credit cards offer different types of travel insurance. This can wind up being a valuable aspect of credit card rewards.

•   Be prepared financially. Besides making sure you’ve got your credit cards, it’s a good idea to sock some money away in a travel fund account. You may need access to extra cash via your debit card if you end up with unexpected healthcare costs. Or you might need to stay an extra night at your hotel, be it in Baltimore or Boca, if you are too sick to travel.

•   Leave your medical information with loved ones. In case of an emergency, it’s a good idea for friends or family to have all your crucial medical information. Make a list of the medications you take, your doctors’ contact information, allergies you may have, your blood type, your health insurance details, and any other pertinent information such as specific health conditions you have.

Recommended: Credit Card Miles vs. Cash Back: Guide to Choosing

What to Pack in Case You Get Sick

Having certain necessities and creature comforts in your suitcase can keep your vacation from becoming miserable if you get sick. Here are things to bring with you to offer relief, peace of mind, and save you a trip to the pharmacy or a doctor while you’re away:

•   Medications: The last thing you want to do is leave behind your prescription medications. Be sure you pack them in your carry-on or purse instead of your checked luggage in case it gets lost. Double-check you’ve got enough to last throughout at least the duration of your trip.

It’s also a good idea to include some basic over-the-counter remedies too, including pain relievers, cold and flu medication, antacids, motion-sickness pills, antihistamines, and antidiarrheal and anti-nausea drugs.

Be aware that many countries have restrictions on what medications you can bring in through customs. The U.S. Department of State recommends visiting the International Travel Country Information page. There, you can find the contact information for your destination’s embassy or consulate and visit their website to learn what drugs or supplies may be prohibited.

•   Heating pad: Easy to pack in your baggage, a heating pad can ease cramps or sore muscles.

•   Medical supplies: In case of emergency, make sure you pack important medical items such as a medical alert bracelet or necklace, contact lenses or glasses, inhalers, EpiPens, diabetes testing equipment, and insulin supplies.

•   Hand sanitizer and/or antibacterial wipes.

•   Face masks: Experts say non-surgical N95s and KN95s offer the best protection. Have an ample supply of face masks on hand to wear on flights and in any other crowded environments, especially in places where COVID-19 rates are still high.

•   Water purifying or disinfecting tablets: These tablets can be used to kill harmful microorganisms in water. You can also opt for buying bottled water.

•   First-aid kit: Create your own with antibacterial or antifungal ointments, 1% hydrocortisone cream, a digital thermometer, bandages or adhesives, aloe gel for sunburns, insect bite anti-itch cream, and an antiseptic wound cleaner.

•   Health insurance information and other documentation: The CDC recommends having the following paperwork with you while you’re on vacation: copies of your passport, travel documents, all prescriptions, health insurance card, proof of any required vaccinations or shots, and a contact card. Your contact card should list phone numbers, email addresses, and street addresses of family members and other people designated as emergency contacts back home.

Self-Care If You Start Feeling Sick

In the event you begin to feel sick on your vacation, be honest with how you’re feeling. It can be tempting to try to ignore what’s going on so you don’t disrupt your trip, but you may only make things worse.

If your symptoms feel relatively mild, such as having the sniffles, sneezing, or mild indigestion, there’s probably no reason to rush to seek medical care. Hopefully, you’ve packed basic OTC meds and can treat your symptoms.

However, if you fall seriously ill or sustain an injury, it’s important to seek medical attention right away. Find a local doctor’s office, clinic, or hospital to get checked out. Talk to your hotel’s concierge to see if there’s a doctor on-site or one that makes house calls for guests. If you’re on a cruise, rest assured all major cruise lines typically have a ship’s medical center, staffed by credentialed doctors and nurses.

Tips on How to Deal If You Get Sick Overseas

Becoming ill while you’re visiting another country can be challenging. There may be language barriers and depending on your location, limited access to medical care. You may also feel unsure of the quality of healthcare you’ll get.

Here’s some ways you can deal with illness if you’re in a foreign country:

•   Seek medical care if you need it. It can be tempting to go without seeing a doctor because you’re afraid of the cost or you’re unsure of the country’s medical system. However, if you’re very sick or injured, you may not have a choice. Airlines have the right to refuse sick passengers so it’s best to get treatment before you go home.

•   Get in touch with your insurance company. Find out if they cover emergencies abroad, and see if they can refer you to a local healthcare provider.

•   Reach out to the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. They can give you a list of providers and medical facilities in the area, help you find medical assistance if you’re seriously ill, inform your loved ones back home, and help transfer funds to you. The number 888-407-4747 can help you connect with a U.S. Embassy or Consulate while abroad.

•   Visit a public or government-run hospital if you’re worried about cost. Depending on which country you visit, medical care at public or government-run hospitals for tourists may be low-cost or, in rare cases, free, compared to a private one.

•   Search for a global clinic. The International Society of Travel Medicine provides online locations for clinics in more than 90 countries. These clinics offer counseling and medicines to help protect people while traveling internationally.

As mentioned earlier, you can also ask hotel management if there’s a doctor who makes house-calls. Don’t forget the power of networking either. Know anyone who lives in your destination country, or do you have a friend who does? Ask for personal recommendations. Your Airbnb host, if you have one, may also be able to offer help and suggest reputable doctors in the area.

Recommended: Guide to Saving Money on Hotels for Your Next Vacation

The Takeaway

Getting injured or sick during vacation is the last thing anyone wants. But if it does happen, preparation is key and can save you a significant amount of worry and stress. Knowing what to pack, where to seek medical help, and how to take care of yourself if illness strikes gives you a roadmap for what to do if your holiday takes an unhealthy turn.

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How do I make sure I don’t get sick on vacation?

There are many ways you can avoid coming down with something while you’re away. Get adequate rest and sleep in the weeks and days before your trip, wash your hands frequently, and steer clear of other sick people whenever possible. Travel with any prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications you may need, such as pain relievers or antihistamines.

Is it normal to get sick on vacation?

Getting sick isn’t uncommon. The stress of traveling along with jet lag can impact your immune system, making it harder for your body to fight off some infections or viruses. Eating or drinking contaminated food and water can also cause you to get sick. Traveling in close quarters such as on a plane or a train, where there may be other ill people, can boost the chances you can catch something by touching a contaminated surface or just breathing the air.

If I’m sick before I leave, should I cancel my vacation?

You’ll definitely want to talk to your doctor before you make any decisions. But many health experts advise rescheduling or delaying your trip if you’re sick, especially if you’ve got a fever. While it might seem minor, even having a common cold may be a reason to rethink your vacation. Why? Flying can exacerbate symptoms of respiratory illnesses. Being sick can also endanger other passengers around you. You should absolutely not travel if you have tested positive for COVID-19, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Photo credit: iStock/AntonioGuillem

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