Getting sick while on the road

Getting sick while on the road

When I was in my 20s, I visited a back specialist and was told that I have the back of an 80-year-old. (Lovely, right?) What this means is that once or twice a year, I tweak it just right and go down for the count for about a week. This happened to me a few days ago and last night, as B and I talked about how glad I am that this hasn’t ever happened on a major trip, we thought sickness/medicine might be a good topic to discuss here. This post will recommend what travel medicine to bring with you on a trip and share some stories on how to cope mid-trip if something bad goes down.

First Aid Kit

I have had the same old ziplock baggie with my homemade first aid kit for years now. Before I go on a trip or long hike or whatever, I make sure to throw it in my backpack. Here’s what it contains:

  • Bandages (in a few different sizes)
  • Anti-bacterial cream (like Neosporin)
  • Ibuprofen
  • Allergy medicine (like Benadryl)
  • Anti-diarrheal medicine
  • Sleeping pills (like Tylenol PM)
  • Moleskin (in case of blisters


If you commonly take something back home, you should also take some of this with you. For example, B sometimes gets heartburn so she will pack antacids (like Tums) with her when she goes on a trip. (It goes without saying that if you take prescription medication, you need to take these with you also.) You don’t actually need to take your whole pharmaceutical stock with you because countries around the world have pharmacies where you can buy whatever specialty item you need. For example….

Travel Medicine in Austria

When visiting Europe during the Spring, I was beset with an itchy throat and eyes, sneezing and a runny nose. I hadn’t ever really experienced allergies before, but they hit me hard while I was there. So I picked up some anti-allergy medicine and some tissues and was good to go.

Mirabell Garden in Salzburg
European flowers are pretty and full of histamine

Travel Medicine in Peru

In Peru, we went to a place where malaria was a threat. I didn’t want to pay for all of the choloriquin in the U.S. because I knew it would be dirt cheap in Peru. Once I arrived, I headed to a farmacia and got the rest of my series. I was surprised to learn that our pills in the U.S. are treated with stuff to make them not taste so gross. They didn’t do that with the pills in Peru so they tasted real bad. However, I stayed malaria free.

Floating island on Lake Titicaca
Hanging out on Lake Titicaca

Travel Medicine in Poland

In Poland, C sprained her ankle pretty badly about an hour after we landed. We all packed some ibuprofen, but she pretty much cleaned us out over the course of the trip. We had to resort to the R-I-C-E technique as much as we could: Rest (This didn’t really happen. She was such a trooper!); Ice; Compress with our tightest socks; and Elevate (when she could).

Lahemaa Park in Estonia bike ride
C was so tough. She even completed a 20-mile bike ride with her sprained ankle in Estonia.

Travel Medicine in Morocco

In Morocco, part of our group got pretty sick along the way. We were fine until one day, B wasn’t. Our tour guide had recommended some medication to the others and they were nice enough to share with B. To this day, we aren’t sure what these magic pills actually were. But they stopped her nausea right in its tracks. Now I’m not advocating taking whatever medication people in a foreign country give you (100% not). However, we felt safe because our tour guide and a pharmacist recommended it. Plus, the others in our group had been helped by the magic pills for several days. If you have access to the internet, you can look up what medications are just to make sure you aren’t taking something crazy.

Todra Gorge, Morocco
B and I rockin’ the kasbahs in Morocco. Before she started hurling.

Homeopathic Travel Medicine

Another good option is natural remedies. I’m not a huge homeopathic cure kinda gal, but I figure if something won’t hurt and it might help, why not? In Ecuador, B and I left our resort to follow our guide, Patricio, and driver, Enrique, to the Napo River for a swim. (Yes, in retrospect, that is the plot for a news story where the dumb American girls are never heard from again.) Patricio and Enrique were perfect gentlemen, but we were assaulted by sand flies. And not just a little–we each got about 50 bites. Patricio recommended we squeeze lemon juice onto them and they’d be gone the next day. Well, the lemon juice might have helped…but we had those bites on our legs for the next few months. Maybe they just stuck around to remind us not to follow near strangers into the jungle.

Tubing on the Rio Napo
The Napo is a tributary of the Amazon

The Napo is a tributary of the Amazon.

Sometimes the natural remedies really do work, though. B and I took separate trips to Peru, but we both experienced an easing of altitude sickness by using coca leaves. Coca leaves come from the plant that makes cocaine–let’s just get that out in the open. In the Andes, coca leaves are a traditional way to combat the headaches and nausea that come along with being 15,000 feet above sea level. You can use the leaves in a few different ways; the big two are by steeping the leaves in tea or by rolling them together and sucking on a wad of them. I much preferred the tea, although it wasn’t particularly good. It reminded me of green tea or yerba mate (neither of which I drink unless I have to). We both felt the leaves helped us feel better while we acclimated to the higher altitude. And no, Mom, you can’t get high from drinking the tea.

Altimeter hiking in the Inca Trail
Chewing Coca leaves helps when you are so high in the Inca Trail

Best Remedy for Travel Sickness: Avoidance

Luckily, we have never had to go to a hospital while on a trip. I can imagine that would be a pretty scary experience and I hope I never have to. We do make sure (as much as possible) to be careful with the food that we eat. In countries without potable drinking water, it is a good idea to stay away from anything that could have been rinsed in the water without then being cooked–a green salad for example. Another trick that we’ve read about is to eat some local yogurt as soon as you can upon arriving. The bacteria in the yogurt will help your stomach adjust to whatever differences are in the food that your body isn’t used to. I don’t know that this trick has worked for me, but I like yogurt and it can’t really hurt, so I usually eat some as soon as I can.

2nd Best Remedy: Common Sense

One final note of warning: my brother-in-law tells a story about when he was in South America with a native Peruvian who wasn’t feeling well. They went to a farmacia and the guy proceeded to get one of a few different kind of pills, all of which he took. He ended up with an allergic reaction where his lips swelled up, nice and big. It’s important to know that some pharmacies in other countries are not regulated like they are in the U.S. Red tape and bureaucracy can be a pain, but they can also protect you from swollen lips. Be smart when you are in other countries and don’t randomly medicate yourself just because you can.


Getting sick and hurt happens. It happens to me in one way or another on just about every trip (I call it my delicate constitution). However, you don’t have to let getting a little sick ruin your whole trip. By being prepared and knowing yourself, you can preempt a lot of uncomfortable situations. And after all, travel is all about getting out of your comfort zone and seeing how you do.

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