A Little Adrift

A Little Discussion… Health and Travel Sickness in Long-term Travel

One of the scariest obstacles to international travel is often the health question. In my planning stages for my own round the world trip I fretted over the health side of the equation because it was the big unknown. Beyond vaccinating myself, stocking my medical kit, and buying really good travel insurance, the rest was out of my control, and I really like maintaining control. Alongside the common questions I’ve covered these past few months in my ongoing series about facing fears and obstacles to travel, the health topic is a big one. It crops up in many reader emails as pre-planning questions, but I have also wrestled with guilt from time to time because there is no promise of health. Over the years, several long-time readers emailed me about their health battles after setting out on their big trip overseas.

Though I was sick every day of our Myanmar trip, I wouldn’t trade those memories of traveling with my niece for all the world. :)

While my travel planning resource page tackles a lot of the basic questions, it doesn’t factor in the emotional toll that health can take on you while traveling. I discussed fears of physical dangers earlier this summer, but the health topic is one I have thought about how to approach for many months. At the most basic level, it’s more dangerous on your health to travel than stay home. And in the other fears I discussed, that was either not the case, or the risks were relatively equal. But with the type of travel I undertake, it’s often to remote areas without medical access and with serious diseases—areas where I willingly put myself at more of a health risk than staying put in a place with quick and easy hospital access.

I state this so clearly out of respect for the adventurous travelers who have ventured out on trips and faced their own obstacles and stumbles. For the woman who emailed me for advice after she took off on her first trip to India, only to fly home weeks later with a persistent and lasting battle with giardia for more than ten months (she ended each email with the assertion she would resume her trip once better though!). And for others who emailed me saying they felt like they did something wrong because they got sick right away, or robbed on the first day of travel, or lonely on day two.

Travel is not always glamorous and though I believe it’s worth the trade-off, it’s best to have a healthy respect for the issues so you take the right precautions. First let’s look at a rundown of what I’ve faced since I left in 2008, perspectives on the long-term effect on my health, and then a long list of tips and resources to keep you safe and healthy on the road.

The Sickness Rundown

Shiva watching over the Ganges River–my first sight of  Rishikesh after battling food poisoning on the night train.

Leaving to travel I knew I had general health on my side—I ate a healthy vegetarian diet, hiked reluctantly but often, and rarely faced serious illness. My only Achilles heel is a bizarre and varied list of allergies to things that bite/sting. Not too bad, and so, let’s look at the serious and not-so-serious things my immune system was up to over the past five years:

And now, after that last bout with de-worming and antibiotics, which I took while I was in Mexico earlier this year, I am finally feeling really good. I am healthy in a way I haven’t been for years. I am fairly positive that I am parasite-free, and I am so good, in fact, that my best friend convinced me to train for a marathon in January. :)

The Toll on My Health

My cat, Sylar, also called Baby Kitty despite being huge now. And despite my allergies I deal with it because he’s too cute for us to send away. :)

I haven’t come out of these past five years unscathed, but this varied list of ailments doesn’t make me fear travel. Quite the opposite, most of these I listed I forgot about until I made this list because once the illness passes I am back to enjoying being on the road, hearing new stories, and meeting new people. I am pretty big on being prepared, and then accepting that you can’t do much in life beyond that.

I am a planner and a preparer, I carry a well-stocked medical kit—double stocked when my niece Ana traveled with me—and my kit has helped me and dozens of other travelers I met along the way who needed help. And that’s a biggie, I ask for help and have played the pantomime game with pharmacists all over the world to find the medicine I needed.

Before traveling, my only known allergies were mild reactions to stinging/biting things (as I child I was very allergic to fleas), and a mild cat allergy. Over the years all my allergies worsened, with the most notable change after dysentery, when I took a huge course of strong antibiotics and I was underweight and undernourished for months after it. On the other side of that illness I have much more severe allergies to the mundane things like seasonal allergies and hay-fever—and I’ll know within seconds if you have a cat in your house.

Ana never got sick on our trip despite her adventurous appetite. Here she gives me a thumbs up for our yummy breakfast in Hpa-An, Myanmar.

And as much as past health helps, it’s as much about luck, experience, and preparedness to stay healthy on the road. And I’ll note time and again that I come out smiling and grateful for the travels and life I’ve led these past five years. Though there is little chance I would have contracted some of these illnesses if I wasn’t on the road, there surely would have been something else cropping up instead.

10 Practical Tips for Travel Sickness

Next month I have a whole post coming about tackling toilet time on the road, mostly because it’s seems so infrequently discussed, but I suspect it’s one of those things readers Google while their browser is in incognito mode. It’s important to maintain honesty about travel, and health is one of those things. I’ll be the first to encourage someone to take the leap and travel asap, but with that leap comes the responsibility to stay informed.

With that in mind, is there anything I missed, tips you’ve found for staying healthy on the road or any resources that add to the topic of health and travel sickness for new or worried travelers? 

This post is a part of my monthly series on overcoming fears to travel, check out all the posts here, new ones on the first Tuesday of every month.

Resources to Stay Healthy While You Travel