Self-Diagnosing on the Road

Tara Putting on a Bandage

Tara putting on a bandage after a minor motorbike mishap in Laos.

When you take a short vacation from work, you typically wouldn’t visit a doctor during your trip unless a serious matter had to be addressed. Long-term travelers, however, can’t wait months until their return to seek treatment or a doctor’s opinion. They have to find care on the road or risk that a small issue might turn into a larger one. But even if they have health coverage, the hassle of navigating through their plan’s fine print coupled with trying to find a trustworthy physician in a foreign country discourages some from seeking help.

If you recall, when Mike and I were planning our trip, we divided tasks according to our individual strengths. It was my responsibility to find travel insurance that would also provide us with good medical coverage, and I took this job very seriously. We ended up buying 13 months of insurance through STA Travel, with coverage administered by CSA Travel Protection. There were a variety of reasons this insurance won out against our second choice, but one very nice inclusion was that a one-time payment of up to $1,000 could be applied toward your first in-network physician visit during your coverage period. Naturally, we didn’t want to waste that $1,000 by going to the doctor for the common cold or something that would only use a small portion of that monetary offer. But we’ve also never been the type to run to the doctor for every ache and pain anyway. It would be better, we thought, to put the $1,000 toward what would be a more expensive doctor visit, like to treat a broken ankle or – heaven forbid – something major.

Since we opted to wait for that “big reason” to visit the doctor, we decided to self-diagnose all of our small ailments. To help, we searched our mental archives for similar situations from the past and consulted the great Internet database of hypochondriacs. Then we talked it out, non-professionally advising each other and prescribing doctor-like treatments. Here are a few “little things” two non-doctors with film and journalism degrees concluded we had, with their respective treatments:

Bed bug bites: visit a pharmacy (which included showing red spots to a doctor and miming the act of scratching)
Food poisoning: ride it out with some Pepto (to calm the stomach) and Immodium (to help the bowels)
Carpal tunnel/tendinitis: buy a wrist brace
Bilharzia: visit a pharmacy and ask for pills (this was more of a preventative measure after skinny dipping in Lake Malawi 🙂 )
Strep throat: take a Z-pack (antibiotics that we brought with us)
Stained teeth: get a cleaning at a local dentist (yes, we were as freaked out about this as strep throat)

Mike at the Dentist

Mike at the dentist in Saigon. Thanks, Binh!

We actually had a pretty decent collection of medicine with us, though we forgot to use some of our best stuff. During our horrible bouts of food poisoning in India, we forgot to take the Cipro we brought. And as we climbed high into the Himalayas, our high-altitude sickness-stopper pills went untouched in our bags. Silly us.

It’s not that we didn’t care about our health. It just took about six months for us to fall into that long-term traveler mindset, which is why many of our reactions were similar to those of short-term travelers (e.g.: ride it out or wait until home to seek treatment). We kind of ignored the contents of our first aid kit because we weren’t used to relying on it. And sometimes when we were forgetful, we had the good fortune of other travelers stepping in to act as physician assistants, giving us healthcare tips to help our self-treatment plan. For example, we didn’t think to pack vitamins or electrolyte powder or tablets before leaving, and when we were sick in India, a fellow traveler helped us out by giving us electrolyte powder to mix with water. (Thanks again, Eve!) And in Egypt, we were advised by a local to buy a specific brand of “Egyptian Immodium” to help treat any food poisoning-like symptoms we might experience during our time there.

Mike and I never did end up using that $1,000 (for either of us), and we never needed to take advantage of our medical or travel insurance coverage at all. I would honestly still do it all the same way again. Hopefully I wouldn’t forget the medicine I packed, but I would still buy the same health coverage even if the only thing it ends up doing is giving me peace of mind.

Do you have a plan of attack for when you feel ill abroad? How have you handled past medical situations on the road? Leave your comments below!

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