Sick while traveling: stories and tips

Getting sick while traveling can be tricky. Welcome to my collection of stories and tips of traveling while sick.

Ever since I left Italy, my home country, in 2016, I fell ill countless times.

In 2016 I almost fainted on a beautiful beach in Florianopolis, Brazil.

In 2017 I was hitten by a powerful stomach flu after my first authentic Indian dinner.

2018: first a never ending flu in Germany. Then stomach infection in Poland. Then I moved to India…with 6 months of stomach-related issues.

Curious to know more? Keep reading, you’ll find an interesting story of stomachache survival in India.

Right before fainting. Florianopolis, Brazil, 2016.

In 2019 my wisdom teeth troubled me a lot. With fever and antibiotics taken while traveling – it used to be light that in the pre-covid era, remember?

2020: honestly don’t recall. It was a year spent indoors with few adventures – and no illnesses, but at least I got my wisdom teeth removed.

2021: first a bad stomach flu after my trip in Cartagena, Colombia. Then I got bitten by some insect in Ecuador and had three days of fever. Finally in October, an intense cold while traveling to San Gil – which didn’t stop me from paragliding or diving into natural caves. 

And now 2022. I knew it was going to happen sooner or later, especially after the intense reggaeton and salsa parties I’ve been to. And here I am, writing this article with a runny nose. I’m covid-positive.

No panic, though. Over the years I’ve learnt how to cope with getting sick while traveling.

Colombia, 2022. Covid positive.

Here are my 6 golden rules to survival.

1.Prevention. Boost your immune system beforehand.

I’d recommend you strengthen your immune system with some natural excipients which will prevent you from getting sick while traveling. You may use Spirulina, Echinacea or other natural supplements.

In my case, I’ve been taking coca flour (a daily tea spoon melt in water) since July 2021.

Prevention also encompasses, for example, 1 month therapy with probiotics before a trip to India.

2.Prevention-part 2: get vaccinated prior to departure.

It is good practice to check out the health rules and/or recommendations of the country you are about to enter. These may include vaccinations.

For example, I decided to get vaccinated against yellow fever before my trip to Brazil. Against cholera and several hepatitis’ strains before traveling to India. Typhus before landing in Colombia.

In the first case I got my shot in the airport a couple of weeks before my flight. Airports normally provide the vaccination service, so you may want to take that into account while looking for a vaccination centre for tropical diseases.

On the CDC website, you will find top-notch information about vaccination. I recommend, if you have the chance, prioritise getting vaccinated (which also includes investing a little money).

You won’t regret it, believe me.

In 2018, during my first month in India I fell ill with fever and all. I went to a clinic and while they were running a blood test, I remember thinking “Marti do not panic. It can be malaria or dengue, but at least it cannot be typhus, together with the other bunch of illnesses I got a vaccine for.”

Eventually, it was just a regular flu.

3) Make a list of (decent) clinics close to you

I always travel with a little notebook. I need it to write thoughts and ideas, but also for safety in case of an emergency. My notebook gathers my emergency contacts, numbers and addresses of consulates/embassies in the country, together with the police/ambulance number.

And the contacts of local clinics.

You may base the list on google search, as well as on suggestions from your local friends. And believe them if they tell you that in that clinic it is better not to step foot in…

Mumbai, India

4) Check your insurance requirements (and get an insurance!)

Before you travel, you must buy an insurance. Today, my insurance is taken care of by the organisation I’m working for. However, I used Generali and Europ Assistance for my trip to Brazil; AON for my study experience in India. 

As soon as a health issue arises, you may want to turn to your insurance company and ask for their help. They might support you, for example, even in identifying the closest (and most reliable) clinic for your treatment.

It’s important that you pick the right insurance for your trip (it must include covid-related treatment!) and that you invest the right amount of money on it. Then you probably won’t need it but you know what they say, better safe than sorry!

5) Carry around your personal pharmacy

It’s true, you can buy medicine everywhere. But you’ll see: the moment you fall sick, you’ll probably be in the middle of nowhere.

In my case it has been in a remote area in the coast of Ecuador, in a highly populated Indian city but during a day of national strike, or in an empty hostel in the coast of Guadalupe.

You can be sure: when you need a pharmacy, you won’t find a pharmacy. And that’s where your personal pharmacy comes about.

Sick while traveling? Here is my list of medical essentials:

  • 2 (general) antibiotics;
  • 1 Xifaxan antibiotics, to treat travellers’ diarrhoea;
  • 1 medicine for cystitis;
  • 1 blister of Paracetamol for fever;
  • 1 blister of ibuprofen for fever, headache;
  • Ketoprofen for fever, headache, flu;
  • 1 blister of Imodium (active principle: loperamide cloridrato) alias, a safety net against diarrhoea;
  • Some Smecta – diosmectita based medicine to treat heavy stomachaches;
  • 1 set of probiotics;
  • Antihistamine-based cream;
  • Sunburn relief cream;

I may look like I’m exaggerating. However, I promise those times I didn’t have one of these medicines I ended up needing that very product.

Let me give you a glaring example – here is one my my favorite getting sick while traveling story.

Dev Deepawali, Varanasi, India 2018

Varanasi, India 2018.

I had spent the night before out in the city with an Indian guy and a British girl. It was Dev Deepawali, the Diwali of Varanasi. The ghats were full with candles and overcrowded with people. Everyone was celebrating the lights’ festival.

I was feeling joyful. I also accepted to pose for some local media who wanted to take pictures of me – just because I was a white and blonde tourist in Varanasi for Dev Deepawali.

Photo-shooting in Varanasi. I have photographic evidence.

Then we had dinner with my friends (some dahl and paneer), said goodbye and went to bed. On the next day I was going to travel back to Pune and my alarm for the was set at 6am.

However, I wake up at 5, with a familiar feeling in my belly.

Please not today – I thought.

But today was meant to be the day. The “sick while traveling” day.

Right after my stop in the restroom, I take the first emergency pill to stop diarrhoea. Then I get ready and leave the hostel.

I walk in the dark and lonely centre of Varanasi, swerving through cow shit and trash, until I get to the main road. I was expecting the road to be quiet, so to call an Uber from there to get to the airport

However, when I get to the main road, I found myself in the urban jungle. I am surrounded by agitated people holding signs, tuk tuks honking, carts and animals all over the pavement. That day in Varanasi there was a public demonstration.

I start sweating. Being in a protest is always tricky. Especially when you do not feel well at all.

I take my phone to get an Uber. Meanwhile, I’m building what I used to call “protection bubble”.

I had become used to creating an imaginary bubble to isolate myself from the chaos of the Indian microcosm.

I feel relieved when I see I managed to get an Uber – coming in 12 minutes. My stomach is hurting badly, but I can do it – I remember thinking.

My driver arrives. However I can’t find him, in the middle of the demonstration.

He calls me. He doesn’t speak English (and I don’t speak Hindi) and we end up having a surreal conversation. We sort of agreed on a meeting point, which, unexpectedly, I find after a few minutes.

When I hop on the car, I feel exhausted, and I am about to faint. I take another pill to avoid a disaster and commit to slowing down my breath.

Outside it’s a chaos: cars, rickshaws, cows, goats, pigs, fruit carts, and unidentified means of transportations occupying the road. I close my eyes and contract my stomach.

Eventually we get to the airport.

While standing in line at the airport entrance for the first round of control I start feeling worse and worse.

Suddenly I see a western lady who reminds me of my mum. I must be a sign – I think.

I approach her ask her if she has antibacterial or any other medicine which could help me. 

The lady is French. Unfortunately she can’t help me. She only has the same product which I have been taking – and which isn’t helping. She is very sorry, I can see it from her eyes.

Meanwhile, I have gotten inside the airport, the first control is now behind me.

I run to the toilet. I stay there for around 30 minutes and feel like I’m going to pass out. It’s clear my stomach pill isn’t doing its job. It’s also clear I can’t travel in this condition. I find the energy, leave the toilet and look for a doctor. Each airport has one.

That’s how I end up in this dark, dirty room with a chubby Indian man looking at me and at my hair as if he had never seen a non Indian person.

I explain my problem, I feel cold and I’m shaking due to the pain.

He makes me lying down on the cot. He professionally feels my stomach and ends up giving my desidered antibacterial for stomach sickness.

Streets of India. 2018.

I immediately take the medicine, full of hope. Six more hours of traveling ahead of me, but I can do it – I remember thinking. I must.

I survive through the airport waiting time and eventually board.

Mine is an aisle seat located in the middle of the aircraft. The man next to me wants to know where I’m from and my whole family history but I don’t have the energy to satisfy his curiosity. 

I speak to the hostess and explain that I might need to use the toilet quite often. She suggests I exchange seats with a man sitting in the last row, right behind the toilet. Once again an aisle seat but none is sitting next to me. Yet.

I fall asleep.

When I wake up we’re flying. I need to use the toilet – what a surprise. That’s when I figure out that a elderly woman I would describe as obese, is sitting next to me. She is not in the condition to stand up to let me pass. But I need to use the toilet, yes or yes.

So  basically I climb over her, hoping nothing similar is going to happen to me ever again. Hoping it’s the last time I get sick while traveling.

I end up using the toilet several times during that flight. Always going through the same climbing ritual…

Two and a half hours later, we land in Mumbai. I’m 3 hours away from Pune, my destination. I had booked a seat on a minivan from Mumbai airport to Pune, so walked to the van company meeting point.

There is no van, of course. It’s two hours late due to traffic, the company guy explains to me.

Traffic in India. 2018

I take a deep breath. It’s absurdly hot and I’m shivering due to the stomachache.

I’m the kind of person that sits down everywhere, but in India I couldn’t keep up with this habit. It was definitely too dirty.

A dada must have noticed I’m not feeling good and offers to look for a chair for me. I accept, full of gratitude. He comes back with a wheelchair. 

I end up sitting on the wheel chairs. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I fall asleep (I have developed a magical ability for nodding off everywhere) and dream that they wouldn’t wake me up when the bus comes. However, a woman gently touches my shoulder to announce that the van is here. Everyone looked so surprised when I stood up from the wheelchair. How to blame them?

I beg for a seat in the front of the minivan, close to the window. I can’t fall asleep this time. The driver’s driving style is not exactly relaxing. It’s very hot and the IC is not working.

Also, the woman sitting next to me (and next to the driver) wants to speak. I passively listen to her, with my head almost completely out of the window. I am looking at the clock every ten minutes.

One hour later I can’t do it anymore: I really need to use the toilet. We stop in the middle of nowhere.

Streets. India, 2018.

There is no toilet, only a hole in the ground hidden by unfinished construction. While I’m using it I see monkeys jumping on the trees.

We stopped again 1 hour later, this time in a real (Indian style) toilet. I can’t remember how many times I’ve gone to the toilet during that day. I buy some water, go back to my seat and sleep through the last hour of the trip.

When I get to Pune I feel I am going to cry of happiness.

Half an hour later I am at home. Exhausted, sick with fever, and yet feeling so empowered. That had been a hard day for me. I struggled and prayed to be home safe despite the circumstances.

And there I was. Home.

Finally home. Pune, India 2018.

When I think of Varanasi my mind also goes back to this story.

A story of discomfort, sick while traveling. But also, a story of reliance and resilience

Reliance on the others. On the French woman who was willing to unpack her whole backpack to get me the medicine I needed. On the old baba who got me a (wheel)chair so that I could sit down.

Also, a story of self-resilience. Of trust in my capacities, in my courage, in my mental strength, when my physical vitality was falling apart.

Needless to say, I have been sick while traveling several other times. I have numerous crazy (and fun) stories on this topic, which I will be sharing in other articles.

And yet every single time, I thought of that long trip from Varanasi, where I learnt about the importance of resisting and trusting. And I kept going.

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