How To Avoid Getting Sick Traveling Abroad

We tend to take our health while we travel for granted. But with the current Ebola outbreak overtaking the news, as overblown as it is, it serves as a good reminder of the how we should prepare to avoid illness while traveling.

Common illnesses can ruin your vacation or business trip if you’re not prepared.

With that said, there are plenty of ways to ensure that you’re being safe when traveling abroad. I’ve done extensive traveling (over 30 countries and 5 continents under my belt), and with that, I’ve attained extensive knowledge on what you need to do to avoid sickness when traveling…and how to combat it when it inevitably hits.

Before You Go

The biggest part of avoiding sickness (like almost everything else in life) is proper preparation. By doing the heavy work ahead of time, you can drastically reduce your chances of illness when you’re out of the country.

Now, this is all assuming that you’ve already selected your destination or travel plan. Your sickness/health plan should all come after you have a detailed travel scheme worked out well before any concern about possible illness comes into play. This doesn’t need to be a definite plan, but you need to know where you’re going before you can start planning for illness mitigation.

Two questions you need to ask yourself after you’ve set your basic outline(in no specific order).

1. Is there a current restriction or warning on the countries that you’re considering visiting? The CDC issues travel warnings for health concerns on a regular basis. Make sure you check out their website ahead of time to ensure that the place you’re heading to doesn’t have any preexisting warnings. This should be a no-brainer. If there are warnings, obviously I would avoid going.

2. What is the current economic state of the places you’re going? Are they developed? Somewhat developed? Not developed at all? This will determine how worrisome the environment is, such as sewage, medical safety, food safety, potable water, etc. This is also tied to the healthcare system in the country(ies) you’re heading to. More developed countries, as you’d expect, have better, more reliable, safer hospitals, clinics, and other medical centers.

Also, where are these countries located? Are they located in tropical zones where most serious diseases generate? How similar is the climate to your current situation? These questions will help you identify the possible pathogens in the area you’re looking for, and how naturally resistant you are to these illnesses. For instance, if you’re visiting somewhere in Africa, you’ll have to watch out for malaria, and if you’re coming from Quebec, chances are you’re more susceptible to contracting it than someone from a similar latitude. Are there diseases you’ll need to vaccinate yourself from? What are the most common diseases in these areas?

Quick tip: if I’m going to be somewhere with dubious water quality, or somewhere that I will be obtaining your own water, I always bring a SteriPen with me…it uses a UV light to purify your water from hazardous microbes. It’s a nifty little tool. There’s also a thing called LifeStraw that works a little differently, but I don’t have any experience with that product, so I can’t vouch for it.

In general, it’s important for you to arm yourself with knowledge before jumping in. Know what you’re getting into.

See a doctor.

If travel advisories are in place, it’s time to go see a doctor. This is where you’re inoculating yourself against possible diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and yellow fever. Make sure you’re giving yourself a big window to do this because some of these vaccinations take several visits for resistance.

Ideally, this should also be your primary care physician. Your doctor knows your history and your family history, and they’ll be well prepared (as you will be to) as far as what you’ll need to do to get you in shape to travel safely abroad.

If you are in a jam, you can find a local travel clinic. Some are open 24/7 and are often strategically located near airports. My one gripe with them is that they’re in the business of selling vaccines and will try to sell you more than what might be suggested by your general practitioner in order to make more money.

Either will give you your vaccines and often times give you some “in case of emergency” antibiotics such as azithromycin or ciproflaxin (this stuff has saved me abroad several times) which are extremely effective at reducing your down-time in the event that you get travelers’ diarrhea  (TD).

Doctors are typically a good fountain of advice to drink from. Be attentive and listen. They’ll be able to help you out in ways that you wouldn’t believe. If they’re prescribing you something, you’re better off taking it with you. Even if you don’t think you need it, take it with you anyway. I didn’t think I needed antibiotics until I came down with a severe fever in Cambodia. You can bet I was happy I brought it along with me then.

Final Prep

Your departure date is coming up. You’ve done your homework, you’ve gotten your shots and you have a handy arsenal of prescriptions to help you out in a jam.

There are a few last-minute OTC things that I always grab with me for a long trip as further protection against traveling sickness. Most of them work as prophylactics, taken ahead of time and supplementing as you go on to ensure proper protection. They are:

  • Probiotics. You’d be surprised how helpful these things can be for keeping your gut balanced when you’re ingesting strange meat and drinking dubious H20.
  • Pink Bismuth(tablets or liquid). This stuff, commonly known as PeptoBismol, is a must-have for traveling abroad. Taken before you get to a country, pink bismuth essentially coats your stomach and digestive system, sucking up toxins and preventing them from entering your blood stream. Studies have shown that travelers who take pink bismuth prophylactically are 65% less likely to get traveler’s diarrhea. This stuff is pink gold.
  • Kaiser Travel Kit. If you have Kaiser Permanente as your health insurance company, like I do, you’d be surprised how helpful they can be in case of emergency. I was admitted to a hospital in Chile for a serious sickness, and they helped cover a large chunk of the cost. The travel kit comes with all the necessary info you need to make sure you’re covered.

That takes care of everything you need to take care of before you leave. Now you’re ready to ship out!

What To Do When Abroad

So now you’re out of the country, and thrust into the great beyond, tossing about in the sea of senses that is the world. What do you do to ensure that you stay healthy and avoid sickness?

Again, don’t take your health for granted. Pay attention to how you’re feeling. It can be tempting to go all out, especially if it’s your first time going out of the country, but take it from me, it’s better to take it easy one night than to be crippled in a hotel room for five days.

Here’s a few good tips to staying healthy:

1. Avoid tap water, but stay hydrated. Unless you’re in a developed country, it’s probably best to avoid drinking the water. Stick to bottled options, and if you’re not in a place where you can, pull out your trusty SteriPen and you should be fine. That said, ensure that your fluids are constantly replenished. I’ve seen countless friends go down simply because they were dehydrated. Not only does it make you more languid and tired, but it can lead to much bigger problems.

2. Wash your hands/use sanitizers. You’re in a place with germs that your body may not naturally encounter. That means your body is in overdrive trying to fight off all these unfamiliar attackers. Do it a favor and do your best to maintain clean hands. You’d be surprised how often you touch your face, mouth or eyes, without even thinking about it. Clean hands is a great way to ward off sickness, especially when you’re handling a lot of money and touching generally unsanitary things. The FDA recommends using a hand sanitizer that has at least 60-95% alcohol content.

3. Use your trusty pink bismuth and probiotics like they’re all you’ve got. As I said earlier, these are great for keeping your digestive tract (the main place of assault for foreign invaders) nice and balanced for the majority of your trip. These are my two most important soldiers in the battle against travel sickness. You don’t have to take the bismuth every day, but I recommend a strict regimen of probiotics.

4. Watch what you eat. Be mindful of what you put in your body. The tomato soup? Probably fine. The raw blowfish? Might be a little bit sketchy. That’s not to say you should avoid the local food, as that’s a huge part of traveling, just be wary of what you’re eating, especially how it’s prepared. If something looks undercooked, skip it.

These are all tips I’ve picked up over years of traveling. Again, I’m not suggesting you retreat into your shell. Enjoy the life and embrace everything, just do it carefully and wisely.

What To Do When You Get Sick

So your stomach is starting to turn, you’re beginning to sweat a lot, and you’re feeling exhausted. I’ve been there, and it is absolutely no fun. You’re run down, tired and maybe you’re even starting to shake.

First things first, assess the situation. How sick are you? Are you bleeding at all? Is there blood in your stool?  Is it diarrhea, or something more serious? Are you vomiting? Is your vomit bloody?

If it is serious, it’s time to utilize the research about the country that you gathered before you left. Utilize the local hospitals if you’re in a country with quality health care, or if you’re in an underdeveloped country, it might be smart to go to your country’s embassy wherever you are. They will help you find a proper doctor, or find other care options for whatever it is that you’re dealing with.

If you don’t think you’re in grave danger with your disease, then take the following steps.

First, take action. And by that I mean, employ the emergency maneuvers you acquired from your medical professional. Your instinct will be to fear the antibiotics your doctor gave you. You will question if you’re actually sick. Is it just a minor upset stomach? Is it food poisoning? Look, I’m not giving you medical advice here, but if you have travelers’ diarrhea, you’ll know it. Trust me. Any physical activity beyond getting out of bed will cause you to break out into a sweat and make you nauseous. The only walking you will be doing will be to the toilet. And when I feel that way, I don’t question it anymore. I take the antibiotics immediately. Personally, I’ve found that cipro or Z-Pak reduces my downtime to about 24 hours. (Without antibiotics, travelers’ diarrhea can put you out for five days.) Drink tons of fluids. Water is important, but you need electrolytes. This can be Gatorade or defizzed soda water. If it’s available, coconut juice is the nectar of the gods, filled with electrolytes and other nutrients that will get you back to feeling like yourself again soon.

Second, take no action. Get as much rest as humanly possible. Sleep for as long as you possibly can. Get some ear plugs from the front desk, and an eye shade, and try to beat Rip Van Winkle’s record. If you skip this part of the regimen, you’ll just be delaying the inevitable. Most of the traveling sickness I’ve run into have been a result of a lack of sleep, and have been easily remedied just by sleeping. Take some time off; it’ll be worth it in the long run.

Third, if you don’t get any better, you could be looking at a more serious problem. This is where you go to seek medical attention. Again, if you’re in a more developed country, this could mean a hospital, or if you’re in a less-developed country, head to your nation’s embassy — they will give you advice and help you get the medical help you need.

Let’s talk about the hospitals. Now, there’s two paths here. If you happen to be in a country that speaks English, you’re in luck. However, if you’re in a country that speaks little English, you could be in trouble, especially if you don’t speak the native tongue.

There’s a few options afforded to you at this point in time.

In the first scenario, you’re lucky: the physician speaks English fluently enough where you can communicate effectively. He prescribes you treatment, and you’re good to go.

Second, you’ve gone to the embassy. In some cases (note: this is from experiences of friends of mine), they’ll be able to send you an escort that will operate as a translator. This person will not only help the sickly you navigate the way to the hospital, but they’ll also essentially work like your mother when you were a sick child, and get you everything you need to get healthy again. This will cost some money, but it’s incredibly worth it.

In some cases, they won’t be able to provide you this service, but embassies are typically very helpful, as you’d expect them to be  when you’re gravely ill. They will do a lot to make sure you’re taken care of, including getting you a taxi to the hospital, transcribing your symptoms and important information into the native language.

In the third scenario, there is no embassy anywhere near you, but you need a doctor. You don’t speak the native tongue. You’re in trouble. How do you get help? The best way to get help is to pay a taxi or cab driver some extra money to come to the hospital with you. Some will even do it for free, out of the kindness of their heart.

The two times I’ve been in places where I didn’t speak the language (Thailand and China) and was far, far away from civilization, this is what I did. Taxi drivers are usually proficient in English, especially at tourist destinations. They can act as your interpreter, helping you get the help you need. Don’t underestimate the power of locals. They can be a big help.


Here’s some good resources to pull from so you can be fully prepared for your travel abroad, and can be armed with what you need when you’re out of the country.

The CDC travel website is a fantastic resource for staying healthy. It’s also hugely important to look out for travel warnings.

The State Department travel section has lots of good information for travelers.

The International Society of Travel Medicine have clinics posted in 80 countries worldwide.

The SteriPen website.

About Author

Sean Callen

Sean Callen is originally from Tucson, Arizona where he studied nutrition. Now he lives with his family and three Australian shepherds in upstate New York.