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June 18, 2018

When to see the doctor when you're traveling, and when to suck it up

Despite best-laid plans, some travelers will need medical attention abroad, but how do you know when to go to the hospital?

Travel Healthy Living
Carroll - American Airlines airplane Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

An American Airlines plane lands at the Philadelphia International Airport.

The summer is finally here, which for many, means the promise of vacations and travel to destinations far and wide. The idea of getting sick overseas is not at the forefront of peoples' minds as they plan their adventures. However, paying attention to your health before you travel can help avoid a crisis abroad, should you become ill.

Discovering differences between cultures is presumably part of the impetus to travel. That said, there can be notable differences in matters such as health insurance and access to care. 

“Sure, there are health risks to international travel, but the goal of a good travel health consultation is to help people understand and minimize those risks so they can focus on their trip and enjoying their time abroad,” said Dr. Ian G. Sheffer, Director of Drexel’s Travel Health Clinic.

Sheffer recommends visiting your doctor to begin trip preparation between three to four months in advance. Checking in on the state of your health before travel is a critical precaution. 

“The first part of ensuring a healthy trip abroad is to make sure that you’re up to date on your general health,” says Sheffer. 

This assessment should include ensuring that vaccinations are up-to-date and gauge important indicators of overall health like blood pressure.

The University of Pennsylvania also urges its students, faculty, and staff traveling internationally to begin their health preparations long before boarding a plane. 

“Your physician should be included in the planning process for your trip, regardless of your destination,” said Erica Sebastian, Senior Associate Director for Programming at Penn Global. 

“This is especially true if you have a chronic health condition.”

The level of planning needed to ensure a healthy trip varies based on your destination and itinerary. 

“For students traveling to more remote or rural locations, we place additional emphasis on the importance of taking an even more proactive approach to their health management and preparation,” said Sebastian.

Despite best-laid plans, it is inevitable that some travelers will find themselves in need of medical attention abroad. How do you know when to go to the hospital? The same reasons that cause you to visit a doctor at home should be followed overseas. 

“Fortunately, the most common illness among travelers abroad is mild and self-limited gastrointestinal upset or ‘traveler’s diarrhea,’ but, of course, more serious things can and do occur,” said Sheffer. 

“Also fortunate is that communications being what they are nowadays, travelers abroad can easily contact their physicians back home, and I advise my patients to do this if the need arises. We certainly can’t prescribe medications for folks overseas, but we can talk through their symptoms and help them to figure out if they need to seek care immediately or not.”

A final suggestion from Sheffer is an easy one to follow. 

“It’s a good idea to make sure you have information about all medications you take, and to prepare a small supply of things you usually keep in your medicine cabinet at home to take with you,” he said. 

“Having some Tylenol or Motrin stashed in your luggage is a lot easier than trying to navigate a foreign pharmacy.”

A travel health provider can help navigate the many moving parts involved in planning an overseas experience. 

Having some Tylenol or Motrin stashed in your luggage is a lot easier than trying to navigate a foreign pharmacy.”

“A travel health physician, usually also a specialist in infectious diseases, can help you to assess the risks specific to your itinerary,” said Sheffer. 

“The advice and medications that we give are tailored to not only to where you’re going, but also to what you’re doing while you’re there. The discussion I have with someone who is going to Thailand to work for six months as a field biologist is going to be very different than the advice I give to a couple going to a resort for a week or two on their honeymoon.”

To ensure that you can access care overseas, travelers must ask some focused questions to their health insurance to find out whether coverage extends beyond U.S. borders. 

“Insurance can be messy for folks traveling abroad,” said Sheffer. 

”The best place to start is with your individual insurance company.”

Sheffer suggests checking with your travel agent or AAA if you find that you cannot apply your regular policy overseas.

There is no shortage of no-cost resources that can assist with research regarding staying healthy abroad. It's always a good idea to review the country-specific information provided by the Department of State. The DOS also provides critical in-country contacts and advice. 

“U.S. embassies or consulates are in most countries throughout the world and are charged with assisting U.S. citizens traveling abroad,” Sheffer advised. 

“Having the contact info for the consulates and/or embassies where you’re traveling to is a must-do for every traveler and can come in handy in an emergency.”

The CDC is also an important resource, though the extensive information it provides can seem overwhelming. 

"It’s important to keep in mind that the CDC’s objective is to provide a comprehensive, ‘cover-all-your-bases’ approach, and this isn’t necessarily needed for all travelers," Sheffer said.

Looking after your health overseas should simply be an extension of your existing efforts at home. Creating a plan to ensure that you have the medication, coverage, and resources available should they be needed on your trip will free up your mind to focus on what matters most when you embark on your journey--having an amazing time. Here’s to healthy travels!