Well, That Sucks: Getting Sick on the Road

I’ve refrained from most graphic descriptions, but this post is not for the squeamish.  Along with the good, there are some ugly parts of travel.  I’m talking about the reality today.

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With all the traveling I do, it’s a wonder I don’t get sick more often.  Airplane cabins are a breeding ground for viruses and I never shy away from street food.  But when you are sick while traveling…man that sucks.

I had almost forgotten just how bad it was since it had been awhile.  I’m a generally healthy person and I think the only reason I avoid most travel-induced bugs is because I do my best to keep a body strong enough to fight things off.

That wasn’t the case in Krakow.

Getting sick while traveling is never fun. Here's the reality of what it's like.

The Curse of the Street Food Zapiekanka in Krakow

There’s nothing quite like getting up at 3 in the morning to run to the bathroom and vomit.  I tossed and turned the rest of the night.

The next morning, I was exhausted and dehydrated.  Mostly I was mad about being too sick to go on my cycling tour of Ojcow National Park.  It was a beautiful day and there’s nothing better than being outside in a beautiful place.  But how can you bike when you can’t even eat breakfast to get some energy?  Nope, that plan was a bust.

zapiekanka krakow
Zapiekanki are popular in Krakow, but it didn’t set well with my stomach.

But I’m strong, and I bounce back.  By lunch, I was showered, dressed, and ready to go the rynek for a bowl of rosół z kury (chicken soup).  We even stopped to do some souvenir shopping along the way!  And then, about four bites into the soup, I was done.  I had to get back to the hotel — and fast.  I volunteered to start walking back on my own so Mike could flag down the waiter and pay, a ridiculously time-consuming chore in Poland.  I made it about 100 yards before frantically searching for a garbage can.

My Plan B of leisurely exploring Krakow’s beautiful churches was also a bust.

Thankfully, by dinner, I was feeling like myself again…but that’s another story.

Getting the Donkey Flu in Morocco

The sickest I’ve ever seen someone while traveling was when Mike and I were in Morocco.  Out of nowhere, Mike got hit by something so hard that it took him over a week to recover.  In retrospect, we call it the “donkey flu”, in reference to the annoying donkeys at our Sahara Desert Camp.  In reality, it was no laughing matter.

We arrived in Chefchaouen before we knew how bad it was.  Mike missed the entire town — as in, can’t describe a single thing about it — since he spent our entire visit in the hotel room.  My only job was to provide cool washcloths in hopes of moderating his fever and to bring bottle after bottle of sparkling water.

sick while traveling in chefchaouen morocco
The door to our Chefchaouen hotel. Mike never ventured outside.

We’re pretty convinced it wasn’t food poisoning, based on the symptoms, but he still ended up with high fevers, chills, extreme dehydration, and nausea.  We didn’t know which would be worse…trying to ride this one out without proper medical care or actually going to a Moroccan hospital.  He made it the 36 hours until we arrived safely in Madrid, where I trusted the medical system again.

Ironically, even though he was still sick at that point, it wasn’t desperate enough to seek hospitalization.

Beware the donkey flu in Morocco.

A Long-Lasting Asian Souvenir

To this day, I’m not sure if I caught a parasite in Laos or Thailand because the timing was questionably right as I arrived in Thailand.

All I know is that I was merely uncomfortable for about a month solid.  I wasn’t sick: I could still eat, sleep, and tour, but something was off with my system.  It was annoying to have to hit the bathroom twice as often plus I was consistently bloated and felt awkward.

sick while traveling in thailand
I don’t look sick in Thailand, do I?

The good news was that was the last three days of my trip and then I came home.  I assumed that after a few nights of sleeping in my own bed and eating “normal” food, I’d recover.  It ended up taking over a month, being a nuisance for both Thanksgiving and Christmas that year.

This parasite was like a rolling airport delay: you always think it’ll be just one day longer because it’s never severe enough to seek intervention.  Next thing you know, the wait adds up to a really long time.

Finally, I decided my system needed a full reset for the New Year.  One juice cleanse later, I was back to normal.  (But man, only drinking juice for 3 days leaves you cranky and unbearable in the meantime).

first aid kit

Beating the Odds

Yes, I’ve gotten sick on vacation.  But I’m amazed at how little I pull out my first aid kit, given the amount of time I’ve spent on the road.  More often than not, I travel without so much as a sniffle!  I chalk this up to the obvious:

  • get a proper amount of rest, even when it’s tempting to run ragged and see everything
  • eat balanced nutrition, despite the temptation of indulgent foods day after day
  • drink lots and lots of water
  • sheer luck

I’m crossing my fingers I won’t be sick on future trips, but that’s not realistic.  I’m sure I’ll be sick again in the future.  After all, travel isn’t about trapping yourself in a safety bubble: it’s about getting out there, shaking hands with a million new people, sampling local delicacies, and exposing yourself to new things.

But pack a few medications, get your vaccines, and buy travel insurance, just in case.

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Share your experience:

Without giving us TMI, let us know in the comments where you’ve been sick on the road.  When did you bounce back?

8 thoughts on “Well, That Sucks: Getting Sick on the Road”

  1. Hi Becky…

    I know the awful feeling of being sick while out of the country. Was it ever a bummer!

    Unfortunately, in my final days of visiting Belize on an exploratory missions trip, I came down with some type of bug. I couldn’t sleep, had chills even in 90 degree heat, dizziness, hacking cough, sneezing, troubles breathing, exhaustion, and abdominal/chest pain. I felt absolutely miserable. Cold and pain meds did nothing to help me; nor did the recommendations of the missionary doctor that was with me.

    The final 3 days of the trip were a total blur as we traveled across the country, viewing the sites, speaking to the people, sharing in the churches, giving of what we had, and eating in people’s homes. (My worst fear was to start an epidemic of the flu or a virus… thankfully, I received no reports of such issues!)

    Upon arrival to the airport in Belize City, I was concerned as to whether they would let me fly because of how sick I had become. After some pleading with American Airlines, they let me on board. But, I again had a few issues when going through customs/immigration in Miami, as well as at the gate for my connecting flight. Luckily, they let me fly home that night, even though it was their recommendation that I be held back for a day or two. (Guess a lot of prayer and pleading helped!)

    I saw my family doctor when I got home. After a lot of testing for tropical illnesses/diseases, she finally concluded that I had a virus that developed into a severe case of Pneumonia. It took a few weeks of being off my feet and several rounds of steroids/antibiotics before I felt well again. Thankfully, I was better just in time for my return trip to Belize which was so much better!

    After what I went through, I would never recommend anyone to “push through” the pain or illness when traveling. It only makes you sicker and it could risk getting those around you sick as well. Take a days or two to rest, drink plenty of fluids, and be sure to carry some over the counter meds with you to fight off the symptoms.

    1. @Scott, such good advice to wait out your illness rather than “pushing through”. Franky you’ll probably recover faster and I definitely believe it’s better not to expose others if it’s something infectious (compared to a food poisoning type sickness).

  2. I would highly recommend carrying some form of antibiotic (I carry Amoxicillin and Cephalexin) when traveling to any country where you are better off NOT going to the hospital or a doctor. Talk to your doctor or a travel doctor for a prescription and instructions. If you don’t use it, save it for the next trip!

    Also guaifenesin (OTC) or better yet Flavamed (OTC in Europe) for bronchitis or pneumonia.

    For easily purchased meds I carry just 2 or 3 doses all in a tiny jewelry ziploc so I can see them. The only things I carry more of are antibiotics, anti-malarial a and pepto bismol (when I was in Vietnam 3 yrs ago I could not find more anywhere).

    Near Wuhan, China, in January, my 8 year old was sick (diarrhea & vomitting) on and off for 15 out of 30 days. He became dehydrated to the point of intense pain in his legs and couldn’t walk on them(probably missing potassium). Eventually we booked a flight to London and I gave him Ammoxocillin, self-guessed the 50% child dosage myself and communicated with the pharmacist with stick drawings of a family and my excellent shirades skills. The Amoxicillin cured the illness, but he broke out in a rash. He’s never had a reaction to Amoxicillin before Dumb me, when buying antibiotics abroad, don’t go for the cheap $3 one, splurge on the expensive $7 one!

    5 years before that in PV, Mexico I was the sickest I’ve ever been with full on travelers’ sickness in the worst way. Only lasted a few days, but knock on wood, I haven’t gotten travelers’ sickness yet since!

    I figure if one travels to third world countries, one should eat the street food (don’t miss the mint and basil in Vietnam!), avoid the water, and just expect your travel itinerary to be stopped in it’s tracks for a day or two from getting sick. If you don’t get sick, then great!

    1. @Lela, Thanks for sharing your tips and stories. I’ve previously carried antibiotics with me (like you, I choose pretty basic stuff like amoxicillin that I’ve purchased over the counter in other countries that allow it). I’ve never stopped at the doctor specifically to ask for a prescription, just take what I have on hand. If you’re prone to getting sick or infections, seems like a smart idea to be prepared.

  3. I have taken to packing pain killers, antibiotic cream, and bandages because I have a walking target on my back when traveling.

    I had to jump out of the way when a bus turned a corner too fast in Germany. By the time I made it to Paris next week, I had to visit a pharmacy to get an antibiotic cream. Since my French accent is horrible, I ended up pointing to the dictionary and the scrape on my knee. I got what I needed.

    After two days of climbing castles in Japan, my legs were so sore that I could barely walk. I went to a convenience store to get painkillers. The convenience store didn’t sell any medicine, but they were kind enough to direct me to a nearby pharmacy. By the way, ibuprofen is sold under the brand name EVE in Japan.

    I agree-buy traveler’s insurance and come prepared for a few sick days. The bumps along the way can make fore great stories.

    1. @Susi, Thanks for sharing your story. Sounds like you’re a pro at communicating what you need, regardless of language barriers. Keep traveling prepared and I hope you don’t need to use your meds/insurance on future trips.

  4. A few years ago, I contracted toxic septicaemia in Thailand. It was during the Songkran Festival and I had badly grazed my leg, getting into a river. Fortunately the doctor who saw me realised that it was a bit more than food poisoning and sent me to Samitivej Sukumvit Hospital in Bangkok, where I stayed for 3 weeks, 1 week in ITU. I suffered kidney failure, lung collapse & heart failure. That I am still alive, I owe to the excellent treatment I received. I was not allowed to fly for a further week after leaving hospital. The final bill including cost of extending my air ticket, additional hotel nights and the hospital stay was over £26000. Good that I was fully covered by travel insurance.

    1. @Tony, I’m so sorry to hear of your experience! Thank goodness it was properly cared for in Bangkok and that you had travel insurance. Thanks for sharing your story and a good reminder to other travelers to treat illness seriously even (especially!) while abroad.

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