Travel Health 101

They say “write what you know”, right? Well… sad as it may be, I do know a thing or two about getting sick while traveling. I’ve thrown out my back in France, come down with salmonella in Cambodia, had Norovirus in the UK, experienced a bout of pancreatitis in Northern Alberta, sprained my ankle in Vietnam, and thrown out my back again in Scotland (yeah, that shot in the butt wasn’t fun). Traveling with David is not a lot better, considering he’s come down with a tropical infection (shewanella) in Mexico on our honeymoon, spent a week visiting emerg twice a day in Canada, and come down with a “Thai Cold”… ahem, the flu, in Thailand.

Basically, we rock dealing with sickness while traveling. Why, you might ask, should people who get sick be giving ANY advice on how to stay healthy on the road? The thing is, almost all of what I’ve listed have been freak incidents that we really couldn’t have done much to prevent. Think of all the things we did prevent! My immune system is useless, yet I’ve managed to avoid a ton of other nasty bugs along the way.

Travel First aid

For what it’s worth, I wanted to share my advice on how to stay healthy on the road, as well as what I pack in my travel first aid kit.

How To Stay Healthy On the Road

  • Take a First Aid Course – Okay, I’m starting big here. I think this totally depends on where you’re traveling, how long you’re going for, what type of travel you’re doing, etc. Before our trip to Southeast Asia, David and I invested some dollars and a couple of days into a brush up First Aid course. Heck, if I was going to choke on something in the middle of nowhere-Laos, I wanted David to know how to give the heimlich. This course actually came in very handy when I sprained my ankle and David strapped it up, just like we’d practiced in the course. From scrapes and sprains to the more serious CPR, it’s nice to go into a trip knowing that you’ll have some idea of how to handle an emergency if you get caught out.
  • Buy Travel Insurance – Sure, there are some folks that risk it. They think that it’s just insurance companies betting on people to be cautious. Well, I’m here to tell you from personal experience that it is worth every penny. On our honeymoon David contracted Shewenella, blowing his foot up like a balloon, so when we came back to Canada he was in the hospital twice a day for a week. Had I NOT had insurance, this would have been $5,000 of my money. Yes, it took a while to get the insurance company to pay up, but at the end of the day we paid $150 for our insurance and a $200 deductable. I call that winning. I read horror stories of folks going to the U.S., thinking nothing of it, getting in an accident and being bankrupted for life. In the worst case scenario, you’ll appreciate the coverage.
  • Get Vaccinated – A good six months before a trip, you should visit a travel health clinic and find out what vaccines are required, if you need to take malaria medication, etc. Some vaccines require multiple doses, so you may need the time to space things out. They aren’t always cheap, so make sure you budget appropriately. Yes, we paid $800 PER PERSON for rabies vaccines. We could have gotten the cheap ones that sometimes work, sometimes don’t, but I tell ya, I’d have been grateful if I’d been bitten by the many monkeys that were dangerously close to my person in Asia. *shudder*
  • Wash Your Hands Regularly – Sounds like common sense, am I right? Don’t make me list the reasons this is important… let’s hope your mother taught you.
  • Eat, Drink, Sleep – Self care goes a long way when traveling. Yes, it can be tempting to gorge on all the incredible food, but remember the word balance! Fresh fruit and vegetables can be just as delectable and a great break from heavy foods. Real Greek salad, anyone? Fruit smoothie? Make sure you drink plenty of clean water and for the love of all that is holy, get your rest! When I did my two Contiki tours, you come to understand what the “Contiki Cough” means. Almost everybody on tour will get sick because they sightsee all day, party all night and ‘sleep’ it off on the bus. Sleep is not for sissies, it’s for the folks who outlast!
  • Embrace Stretching – Long-haul flights can be killer on your muscles, leaving many in pain when they land. Start to incorporate regular stretching and yoga moves into your travels. Your body will feel so much better for it. I personally like an aisle seat (be it on a plane, bus or train) so that I can get up regularly, go to the bathroom and stretch like a fool in that tiny toilet compartment. Hey… at least I don’t ache the same way I used to.
  • Be Kind To Yourself – Travel can take a toll on your mental health, which is just as important as your physical health in my opinion. Take time to rest, have alone time or simply get fresh air. Travel can be incredibly stressful, especially when traveling to new places or with family and friends. While there are tons of positives, you should be kind to yourself when you’re feeling low. Journalling can help, or just bow out early for an evening of rest. You are your number one priority.

What To Pack in Your Travel First Aid Kit?

  • Tweezers
  • Nail scissors
  • Polysporin – I feel like this fixes everything!
  • Electrolyte powders (a.k.a. rehydration salts)
  • Immodium
  • Rub A535 cold/heat patches if you suffer from back pain
  • Rubber gloves
  • Moleskin to prevent blisters on hikes
  • Protective first aid mask for mouth to mouth… you never know and it packs small
  • Cough drops/Throat Lozenges
  • Benadryl Day/Night tablets
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Ibuprofen (Advil)
  • Any perscription medication you might have AND backup prescriptions
  • Antibacterial wipes
  • Plasters (Band-aids)

This might sound excessive, but I can fit it all in a small first aid kit. Just pack intelligently and squeeze it in there!

What Happens If I Do Get Sick?

Adjust your plans! Unless you simply have the sniffles, you’re going to need to be flexible in your travels. David and I had originally planned on taking a two-day slow boat to Laos (one that we’d both been looking forward to for months), when he came down with a flu and fever. You know what? Life happens. Instead we hunkered down in Chiang Mai for another four days while he recovered and I got to explore the city a bit more solo. There is nothing worse than pushing through a serious illness, in fact it can make it better.


If you need to, don’t be afraid to visit the local doctor or hospital. Always err on the side of caution, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the symptoms. If you do need time to recover from an illness… in my book this is the time to spring for the slightly nicer accommodation, especially if you’re traveling on a budget. When I got salmonella in Cambodia (over Christmas!!!), yes we could have stayed in the $10 a night fan-cooled room, but all I wanted (and thankfully got) was a room with air conditioning, a private, clean bathroom and room service. Ain’t no way I was leaving that room for 48 hours!

So, I know that travel health isn’t the spiciest of articles, but I hope that this gives you some ideas for how to take better care of yourself on the road. As soon as you’re back in fighting shape, it will just be a good story to tell… like that time I was near-hallucinating in the hospital in Edinburgh. Good times!

Have you had any travel health scares? How did you handle it? Any tips?


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2 Responses to Travel Health 101

  1. Thea August 4, 2015 at 12:46 pm #

    Oh wow. That’s quite a list of illnesses. Sucks that you got salmonella during Christmas!

    I’ll keep your first aid kit in mind for the next time I travel. Thanks.
    Thea recently posted…Quick review of The I’s Have It: Reflections on Introversion in Student Affairs.My Profile

    • Victoria Smith August 4, 2015 at 7:50 pm #

      Glad the list might be helpful for you! Yeah, we ended up celebrating Christmas later on Valentine’s day to make up for missing all the good food!

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