Having a health issue is never fun, but it's a million times less fun when you're on vacation. Between dealing with ongoing health issues when you're away from home, or getting sick while traveling, being laid up while you're on the road can be nightmare. But what’s the best way to manage?
Family physician Dr. Jen Caudle, DO, an associate professor at Rowan University, says to make sure to check with your doctor first if you are unsure if you are able to travel back home, or how to manage any pre-existing conditions while you’re away. “Traveling with a chronic condition is not impossible and shouldn’t necessarily be avoided — it may simply require extra planning," she says.
“If you choose to travel, make sure to bring all medications and medical devices you need, assess whether you will need assistance, such as wheelchairs or other devices in airports or other forms of transportation, and keep a list of your medications and medical conditions,” she says. Most importantly, Dr. Caudle says to follow your doctor’s orders.
Below, eight people explain how they deal when they get sick while traveling. If you’re in a similar situation, know that there are plenty of ways to handle it so that you're comfortable, even when you're out of your comfort zone.
“I’m a nurse living in Seattle and have always loved traveling and outdoor activities. But following my multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis six years ago, I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to continue doing so. Having MS can make life complicated, but my job allows me to travel frequently while maintaining a home nearby. Thanks to early treatment and the convenience of a twice-a-year infusion schedule, I have become a traveling nurse, moving and changing work locations every few months.
If I’m staying somewhere long-term, I definitely research local hospital systems that have MS centers. My home neurologist also knows that I am traveling, and if I experienced a medical setback, I can easily notify him with a phone call or message through the electronic medical record.
If you’re hesitant to travel with a health issue, my advice would be to start small, think outside the box, and be prepared. Traveling doesn’t have to mean backpacking through Bali for three months — see how you feel after a short road trip to a closer destination. If your health challenges worsen in the heat, but you still love the sun, choose spring or fall to visit that favorite beach. Lastly, take the time to make a comprehensive list of the things you might need. Being prepared will lessen your stress and make sure you have a truly enjoyable travel experience.”
“I’m a traveler who goes by the name Lady Alopecia, a website I set up to support people experiencing hair loss. I’ve been traveling since 2016. I’ve had quite a few health issues, none of which I let stand in the way of my love of traveling! First of all, I’ve had alopecia areata since I was 10. Traveling with a wig proved too difficult, so I shaved my head before setting off for Indonesia. I clocked up a lot of strange reactions then — and still do — but it brings some memorable encounters my way.
I got dengue fever back in 2016 (just a month into my trip!) and was hospitalized in Bangkok for a week, as I was at risk of hemorrhaging. The hospital was amazing, though, by far the best ‘accommodation’ I’d stayed in until that point. And for the past couple of years, I’ve had chronic headaches every day. I’ve had plenty of checks, scans, and tests in Vietnam, which haven’t led to anything. From my experience, if you have good insurance, it’s no big deal to get sick when you’re away or to travel with an existing condition.”
“I co-run @halfhalftravel, so I travel a lot. I have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that makes me allergic to gluten and all gluten-containing products — wheat, barley, rye, flour, soy sauce, beer, beer-battered fried items, items fried in the same fryer as gluten-containing items, and so on. I’ve made it work and have crafted my own translations of my allergies in different languages, usually from Google Translate if I’m somewhere where I don’t speak the language. I’ve also learned how to talk about what I can and cannot eat and what I can eat instead, and to pack snacks from home.
Many cultures are not familiar with allergies that people from other parts of the world seem to have (for example, in China, most servers in restaurants were confused as to why I even had an allergy!). I’d say don’t let your limits scare you off from travel. Sometimes, this means putting a bunch of effort into research before and during your trip, but it’ll pay off.”
“I’ve been traveling through Central and South America for the past four years and also run a travel blog, Project Untethered. I have the genes that code for a genetic heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), an enlarged heart. This puts me at a higher risk of sudden cardiac death, so I had a defibrillator device implanted in my chest as a precautionary measure. This gives me some peace of mind, but it has caused a few hiccups in my travels. For one, I can’t go through metal detectors, so whenever I’m in the airport, I get the full manual pat-down treatment. I’m also supposed to carry a portable monitor around that sends communications from my device to my doctor’s office via WiFi.
During my travels, I’ve also had my fair share of health issues, including a minor motorcycle accident, lung infection, blood clot, and severe stomach infections in remote destinations. These inconveniences don’t bother me much, but what does worry me is traveling to remote places that don’t have proper hospitals. It’s a risk, but in my opinion, it’s a risk worth taking.”
Mary Beth, 56
“I have celiac and Hashimoto’s disease, related to my thyroid. I’m so careful not to consume gluten that I typically eat minimal food while flying. If I accidentally consume gluten, it wreaks havoc on my digestive system and energy levels, so it’s worth it to fast rather than eat questionable foods. My advice is to plan ahead to support your health while traveling. I rely on apps, such as Find Me Gluten Free, and TripAdvisor reviews to find reliable restaurants. I also pack supplements for trips so that I stay on a consistent regimen. In an effort to travel light, only with carry-on luggage, I’ve found priority shipping any essentials to hotels in the U.S. to be very cost-effective, too, even to Hawaii.”
“As a full-time traveler in early retirement with my husband, we run the site EarthVagabonds.com. Traveling the world was our long-time dream and we worked many years to realize that dream. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 46. I decided to have a double mastectomy (without reconstruction) in Croatia, and then we continued traveling once I recovered from surgery. Twice a year, we make sure we are in a country with a great health care system for my oncologist checkups and tamoxifen prescriptions. It takes a bit of research, but it’s a small price to pay to be able to live the dream of a retired budget traveler as an early retiree.”
“I’m a writer, founder of Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications, and travel blogger, based in Tucson, Arizona. I have been to 44 countries, and on a trip last year, I got a staph infection. My nephew and I had traveled to Southeast Asia together, and when we were in Thailand, I developed an itchy, sore rash on my cheek that seemed to be developing blisters. I went to a pharmacy in Chiang Mai, where I was given a cream and told to stay out of the sun. But the rash quickly worsened and spread down my face. In Bangkok, a pharmacist uttered a diagnosis that made my blood run cold: staph. She prescribed some meds and a saline rinse, and the next day I boarded my flight home, already on the mend.
I was traveling stateside this summer and developed pain in my lower abdomen and went to a quick clinic for antibiotics for what I assumed was a UTI. But that night, my symptoms got even worse. After tons of tests, X-rays, and blood work, they sent me to the local hospital for further testing. In a few hours the diagnosis came in: My appendix had ruptured and I had to have emergency surgery.
It’s important to remember that you can encounter health issues whether you are traveling or at home — it’s just a part of life. It’s all too easy to let our fears about having health issues, or dealing with health issues, control the scope of our lives.”
Getting sick or having a flare-up while traveling happens, and as the experiences above show, it's manageable. While traveling with a health ailment or chronic illness may not sound simple, it can definitely be done.
Dr. Jen Caudle, DO, family physician and associate professor at Rowan University