Dallas Morning News,

Experts offer advice for sick travelers abroad

  • Article by: Andrea Sachs
  • Washington Post
  • April 5, 2013 - 9:31 AM

Before leaving on a trip abroad, most travelers prepare for what they imagine as the worst: rain, sunburn, boredom. But sometimes the setback is more serious than a lobster-red nose. What could ail you? Food poisoning, a broken limb, a deep cut, typhoid, dengue fever, malaria. And what can fix you? Proper medical care, no matter the continent, country, city or mountain village.

We sought advice from travel medical experts on how to navigate international health care systems. Here are their tips:

An insurance safety blanket

To determine whether you’re a good candidate for travel medical insurance, Peter Evans, executive vice president of, suggests that you first check your U.S. medical insurance. If your plan covers health incidents abroad, including evacuations, then skip to the next section of this article. If it doesn’t, keep reading.

When choosing a plan, you need to factor in such variables as your destination (remote and rural or modern and urban), planned activities (strolling or scuba diving) and your age and personal health, specifically any pre-existing conditions. You can also choose between single- and multi-trip coverage, depending upon how often you spin the globe.

For the most basic plan, the cost will equal your daily Starbucks coffee-and-scone fix — from $3 to $8 a day.

In addition to easing the financial strain, travel medical insurance also pairs the patient with an assistance company that will provide support from the first distress call to the final discharge.

Playing doctor

In case of emergency, call 911, or the foreign equivalent of H.E.L.P. For non-urgent matters, dial yourself.

When mild health issues crop up, such as a persistent cough or food poisoning, you have the power to self-heal. But you’ll need the proper instruments.

“If people have the skills to self-treat for minor respiratory illness or diarrhea,” says Phyllis Kozarsky, a travel health consultant for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “it’s sort of empowering.”

Before you depart on your travels, Kozarsky recommends a trip to a pharmacy. Her kit, for instance, might include an anti-diarrheal such as Imodium, a painkiller such as Advil, bandages, steroid cream, cough medicine (tablet or capsule), a mild laxative and sleep aids. If you’re allergic to bee stings, pack an EpiPen; if allergens tickle your nose, stock up on an antihistamine.

Also throw in extras of any medications you normally take, in case you lose a few or your return is delayed. And don’t forget the Cipro or Zithromax, prescribed antibiotics that can resolve a slew of stomach and respiratory ailments caused by bacteria.

If you’re parachuting into an exotic locale with such potential risks as malaria or typhoid, visit a travel health clinic for counseling and possibly an armful of vaccinations and a mouthful of medications. Travelers with chronic diseases or conditions should also consult with a travel health provider and share all the details of their trip, including the altitude. Thin air can bedevil folks with compromised respiratory systems, for example.

Despite extreme vigilance — frequent hand-washing, drinking only bottled water, abstaining from raw fruits and veggies — pesky viruses and bacteria may still scale your fortified walls. But if you’re patient, they’ll leave.

For example, food poisoning symptoms should pass within six to 12 hours, and untreated diarrhea typically improves within five days. In addition to taking intestinal medicine, sick individuals should stay hydrated with “safe” liquids, doctors say; serious dehydration can land you in the hospital.

The cause of a fever can be trickier to self-diagnose. If you are in a region where malaria exists, flag down a real doctor.

Finding medical help

There’s a right way and a wrong way to receive medical care while traveling internationally. For starters, travelers should tap into the resources offering medical guidance. For example, the Joint Commission, a nonprofit organization that certifies health care facilities in the United States, has expanded to international hospitals and institutions. Its list covers countries from Austria to Yemen, and many other destinations in between.

The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers provides a growing database of more than 400 clinics in 120 countries that agree to treat any member (free to join; donation much appreciated) for a set fee of $100 per office visit and $170 for a night call.

“We visit the doctors and have close relationships with them,” said IAMAT president Assunta Uffer-Marcolongo. “The traveler knows that he will not be overcharged.”

Health care systems vary tremendously worldwide, as do hospital cultures. Despite the diversity in systems, some universal tips do apply. Americans can often find familiar care at hospitals affiliated with universities, such as Johns Hopkins, or U.S. health care centers, such as Harvard Health.

Or look for places that cater to expats, business travelers or medical tourists. Bruce Kirby, president of the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, suggests contacting the U.S. embassy for recommendations or asking a hotel concierge working at an international chain.

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