Travel sickness — Don’t let it become you
“Not again! Why is this happening to me?”
Frustrated, I sauntered slowly from the bathroom for the third time and collapsed down on the bed, shifting into the fetal position.. The damn travel bug got me again.
As I wallowed in my own self-pity, I realized the time and slowly got ready to leave. We were going on a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. Leaving the guesthouse and heading outside to the van awaiting us, I delivered the verdict to Troy. “Yep, I’m definitely sick.” At the time, I didn’t realize how obsessing over the illness only made the days of recovery even more painful.
That was in 2006. Some things have changed, some haven’t. Over the last 13 years that Troy and I have traveled together, I got sick at least once, on every trip. Now since we’ve started traveling long term, some newly-tested habits have greatly improved my track record. Lucky for Troy, he rarely gets ill. When he does, it’s a quick 24-hour stomach bug or a fever that usually breaks within a day.
As for me, I’ve had the gamut of sickness, a long list of war wounds. I’ve gotten vertigo (severe dizziness), ear infections, bronchitis, painful insect bites leaving my head and neck swollen, food poisoning, stomach flu, and bruised feet and lost toenails from climbing and hiking. The toe thing, in particular, is my badge of honor for mountain climbing. (I don’t mind that one!)
Not only is being sick a physical challenge it’s a mental one as well. I hate the feeling of losing control, which is something you can’t help when you get sick. However, being ill so many times has also made me a tougher person. I’ve developed a resilience to handle other tight situations that frankly are beyond my control.
I know the lovely picture I’ve painted of travel illness probably isn’t making you jump for a plane ticket anytime soon, but please read on. There is a point to all this.
The reality: Sometime during your own travels, you will get sick. So plan for it. Troy and I planned meticulously before our travels. We headed to the travel medical clinic to get our necessary shots and brought a portable medical kit with enough drugs to kill a horse. We also always buy medical insurance.
Upon arrival, we avoided eating certain foods and washed our hands vigorously. You name it, we did it. Sometimes illness is beyond your control, and sometimes just a new climate and new surroundings trigger an awful stomach or flu bug. What you can control is how you choose to handle the symptoms. I’ve created and tested some simple things that have made all the difference in the world to adapt when illness strikes.
**It’s important to note here that I’m not discounting severe illnesses, which leave people in severe pain, hospitalized, or sick for several days. These should not be taken lightly. I’m referring to the norm — the common travel ailments, such as traveler’s diarrhea, stomach pains, food poisoning, cold, and flu.
Adjust your attitude: The most important thing is to shift your thinking. If you get sick, choose not to dwell on it. It’s not easy, but I firmly believe half the battle is not letting it dominate your thoughts. Instead, enjoy the beauty and surroundings that lie in front of you. Mind over matter is essential.
One way to embrace this philosophy is to recognize the negative emotions you’re feeling (anger, pain, regret, etc.) and then let them go. Repeat to yourself: “I choose to not let this thing control my holiday.” (Call it a “thing.” If you call your illness an issue or problem, it instantly becomes negative.) This worked well for me when I was in Myanmar with severe vertigo. I didn’t let it dominate my day but chose to focus my attention on what I was seeing and experiencing, instead of the pain.
Plan to get sick: This may seem odd, but instead of worrying about getting sick, prepare for it and take control of the situation. Everything from a well-stocked medical kit, antibiotics, and health insurance to pay for doctors’ visits should be taken into consideration. There are some other big steps beyond this that have made a huge difference in my travel health.
a) Exercise when traveling: Working out has helped improve my overall health. It’s no coincidence that I stay healthy on travels where I deliberately take care of myself, or, if I do get sick, it only lasts for a short time.
b) Take probiotics every day: I am surprised how few doctors mention the use of probiotics as a preventative measure for travelers’ stomach flu. Probiotics allow good bacteria to build up in your stomach to fight infection. Buy “shelf-stable” probiotics, as they don’t have to be refrigerated, and talk to a pharmacist or health food store about the right dosage. Eating yoghurt and kefir also helps regulate the right amount of good bacteria (although not to the same degree as probiotics).
c) Drink lots of water: This is crucial. Dehydration causes headaches, joint pain, and diarrhea. I brought a drinking vessel (Klean Kanteen spout) that maximizes my water intake every time I sip out of it so it helps me reach my goal of drinking at least three liters a day. I feel less energetic on days I don’t drink enough water.
d) Drink lemon juice every morning: Lemons have several health benefits. Lemon juice aids in digestion, helps hydration, flushes out toxins in your body, reduces pain in joints, and helps with the common cold, to name a few. For the best results, drink it with warm water first thing in the morning for better absorption into your system. Lemons also make water taste great, so add them to your regular drinking water. It may surprise you how much you consume. I cut and store lemons in a plastic bag so they’re available when I need them.
e) Take oregano oil drops: A few drops in water or straight on your tongue (careful, it’s really strong!) is a great relief for stomach and gastrointestinal issues, and cold and flu viruses. I take it when I start to feel ill and have felt better the following day. Be sure to read up on its side effects and who shouldn’t take it. You can find it in any health food store.
f) Drink apple cider vinegar: This stuff does wonders for bloating and indigestion. Mix a teaspoon with a glass of water before and after eating, when you are facing stomach problems. This not only helps indigestion but also has antiseptic properties to help a sore throat when mixed with warm water.
g) Bring oral rehydration salts: When stomach problems hit you with severe diarrhea or vomiting, water intake is necessary to improve hydration. Salts rebalance the electrolytes lost and accelerate hydration back into the body. They are a perfect way to help stomach flu improve within a few days.
h) Dukoral vaccine: This is a vaccine you can get from your doctor for cholera, but it’s also effective for travelers’ diarrhea. It works really well. Best to ask your doctor about it and side effects.
h) Drink green tea: Green tea is proven to inhibit the growth of bacteria of some viruses. Another preventative and healthy way to get a dose of caffeine, with something that could help avoid illness. I bring a travel tea mug and buy green tea as I go. It’s the perfect morning drink.
i) Take vitamins: There is a good chance you will have a bad diet when you travel, not a surprise! This is something we often forget about taking with us. I ensure I have calcium, magnesium, and vitamin A,C,D,E, K along with potassium, zinc and iodine. It’s just a good preventative and healthy regime when you know you are not getting the essential vitamins in your diet. just good practice to take something.
j) A word on street food: I used to avoid street food at all costs. But then, I realized that I’ve been sick in all kinds of restaurants, even 5-star establishments, so I decided to stop avoiding the street vendors. I was missing out on some of the best and least expensive cuisine. If it’s prepared in front of you and cooked steaming hot with clean utensils (or bring your own), it reduces the risk of bacteria and viruses. A good indicator of whether the food is good and clean is if the stall is busy with locals. High turnover is a positive.
After traveling for five months now, I’ve taken advantage of street food in Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. I chose to eat it when it met my criteria above and have avoided places where it didn’t . I haven’t gotten sick yet. Of course, there’s never a guarantee.
Many of these tips above can be useful for an overall health regime whether you are traveling or not. Wherever you are, and whenever it strikes, attitude is half the battle.
We hope this helps you better plan and deal with illness.
Happy and healthy travels!