What to do when you get ill abroad?

Call your Insurance!

You should already have comprehensive travel medical insurance to cover you for medical bills and repatriation (getting you home in a health emergency which cannot be treated locally or getting you to a large modern hospital in the country you are already in).

In the first event of anything serious it is essential to call the telephone number on your insurance policy before arriving at a hospital or starting treatment. This cannot be underestimated. A call only takes a couple of minutes and may save you thousands of pounds and help ensure swift treatment however many travellers simply head to the nearest hospital and start treatment which can cause problems. Avoid rushing straight to the nearest hospital if you are on a tight budget and relying on your insurance to cover everything.

Also make sure you have a copy of your passport somewhere safe as back up.

The case studies below show the importance of calling your insurer before starting treatment.

Case study 1

Volunteer has stomach cramps with a temperature and goes to the nearest hospital without calling their insurer. A room is offered and accepted. The volunteer is put on a drip (usual practice abroad). A consultant attends. On the third day the volunteer is not allowed to leave the hospital without paying the bill. The bill is £290 for the room with consultation and food charged on top. Total bill £420. The insurance company refuse to pay for a retrospect application after the event for a hospital they do not have a contractual arrangement with.There is no other option to pay as the hospital are withholding the passport. The volunteer is understandably stressed. The insurance company then agree to pay. The volunteer leaves the hospital without passport, until the money comes through they will not release the passport. The insurance company change their mind and refuse to pay. The volunteer pays the bill with family support.

Case study 2

Volunteer with same symptoms calls insurer first and attends the ‘listed’ hospital they have a contractual arrangement with in that country. There is an excess of £100 to pay (paid up front as stated in the insurance policy) but nothing else to pay. The volunteer is discharged on day 3 without issue.

Am I really sick?

As seen in the above example, a drip is not uncommon for even the most minor health complaint abroad. On one trip a member of our office took the same symptoms to two different doctors in Peru, one offered a suppository and the other a bed and drip. The drip is certainly a method by which some hospitals can get their foreign patient into a bed and an overnight stay.

We are not saying you should not seek medical attention if you feel unwell abroad but it is a good idea to be aware that things do not operate in the same way as the UK with the NHS system.

Alternative to hospital treatment for minor complaints?

One alternative for minor complaints could be a visit to a private local doctor. This might set you back between £20 and £50 for the appointment charge and a prescription or two will often cost more than at home too. But this might take the worry and stress out of a visit to a large hospital, the insurance worries and staying in a foreign hospital overnight on your own. You will certainly get to see the doctor more quickly in a small clinic. Your local co-ordinator can assist you.

Another option is to visit the local state-run hospital. Your local team will be able to advise you. Do take food and water with you on the way for both waiting and the first few hours if you are interned for treatment. Government or charity run hospitals abroad will rarely provide any non-medical extras like food and water so arrive prepared and take food and water with you on the way for both waiting as there may be long queues and the first few hours if you are interned for treatment.

How can I prevent illness?

Follow all the usual advice for the country you are travelling to – and don’t just read it – follow it! For example, many travellers don’t bother with malaria tablets or simply don’t take them when they have them on them. Make sure you take them if they are recommended, following the instructions carefully.

Is there anything I could take in case I get sick?

A copy of your passport is essential in case your passport is in the worst case scenario withheld by a hospital. It will be easier with a copy to get assistance from your Embassy for an emergency document to travel home.
Flavoured re-hydration (Dioralyte) sachets are great. They might not be available or taste unpleasant in developing countries.
Pack of hardboiled sweets if you get really sick and can’t face eating anything. Mints are often recommended for sickness. A packet of Polo mints or Murray mints are great to keep your energy levels up, if you don’t eat them before you are sick that is. You might want to buy something that you don’t like usually to remove temptation.
Immodium capsules for diarrhoea – means you won’t have to stop travelling or volunteering.

If you are feeling ill now

  • Tell someone!
  • Decide whether you need medical treatment. You know your body better than anyone, just because your room mate worked through the same symptoms doesn’t mean you have to or can do the same.
  • If in any doubt of your health arrange to visit a doctor should be as minimum. Make sure you have enough cash on you for taxi/bus/doctor’s fee and prescription, £100 should normally be enough or whatever you have on you if you have more. If you need money ask someone to help you get to a money exchange or cash machine.
  • Call your insurer for advice if you think you need a hospital visit.

Tips for travellers tummy

The most common complaints are travellers tummy and sun exposure, if you have been checked out by a professional and are prescribed bed rest you may find the following useful, all borne out of our experiences in the same situation!

  • Ask someone to get you at least 4 litres of clean drinking water (or two 2 litre bottles) You may be using it to freshen up so won’t be wasted.
  • A bottle of fizzy drink too in case you are bored of drinking water alone. Some people find drinking it flat helps if you feel sick. Also good for energy.
  • A flannel to wipe your face.
  • A large jug or small bowl is always practical if you feel sick and can’t get to the toilet and there’s no bowl available. Alternatively – place some tissues in the bottom of a plastic bag.
  • Alternatively if you have a jug, fill it with water by the side of your bed and use a flannel (or another small cloth, small vest top or clean underwear!) to wipe your face to bring a temperature down. If you don’t have a jug or bowl – there may be something in the kitchen you can use.
  • Get in front of a fan or fan yourself to get a temperature down.Ask someone to help move your mattress to a more comfortable place to sleep in the evening, even if this means sleeping outside or on a roof terrace.
  • Use painkillers to bring a temperature down, there’s no point suffering if you don’t have to. Fevers in hot countries need to be taken seriously, more so than in a European country so get it down as fast as you can.
  • If you can’t eat, take Berocca for energy and vitamins – if you don’t have some, maybe another volunteer does. Most chemists around the world these days will have something similar.
  • Dried food snacks (like crackers) to nibble on. Even if you can only manage one bite an hour – it’s better than nothing.
  • A cotton pillowcase from home always makes a difference if you’ll be laying down and sleeping for hours on end. If you think you need a few days bed rest – why not ask a fellow volunteer or your co-ordinator to get you more comfortable bedding or some new sheets to help you rest more comfortably.
  • Gel pack if there is a fridge/freezer to cool you down.
  • If you need company and have Wi-Fi, why not listen to a radio talk show, the BBC world service or Radio 4, it might not be your preferred choice at home but can be an interesting alternative when you’re far from home and in need of company.
  • Eye mask, if you forgot to take one; – there might be a few others who took one out for their flight. They can help if you have a headache or the light is too bright.
  • If you need a dark room – ask someone to help you move to a darker room or to hang up something dark at the window like a blanket or some spare sleeping bags.
  • When you feel better, take a shower, rest again and try not to rush around. You may want to take it easy for a day before you get going again. See if you can volunteer just for a few hours until you are back to health.

And do let people around you know if your symptoms worsen and you need to seek treatment again and equally if you start feeling better. Knowing someone is recovering can be useful. It can help others to support you back into the swing of the activity again. You don’t want to start getting depressed in your bedroom – you need to get back out there again!

Hope you feel better soon!