What to do when sick abroad?

Getting sick is never fun at the best of times, but getting sick while living abroad makes it even less fun. Here are some tips and tricks on what to do that I have learned after living abroad for about four and a half years.

Most of this is all about preparation:

  1. Whenever I am in the US, I stock up on certain key medications that I know help me when I am sick. The 'old reliables' that work in a pinch and you know won't cause adverse effects. Over the counter medications such as Advil, Pepto Bismol, etc. The last thing anyone wants to do when they have a splitting headache is try to decipher foreign medication labels.
  2. Get to know the local healthcare system BEFORE you get sick. This is an activity that requires navigating through bureaucracy, social/cultural norms, and language barriers. You want to do this when you are in tip top shape. Not when debilitated by stomach flu.
    1. This means getting health insurance, knowing what your insurance covers, and which doctor you can go to.
    2. Understand what doctors will and won't do in the country where you live. Sometimes this can be a surprise. For instance, do they do home visits? Under which circumstances? Do they have a referral system or can you directly make an appointment with the specialist of your choice?
  3. Most Important: Find a doctor that speaks your native language! I cannot stress this enough. No matter how proficient you are in languages, all of that goes out the window when you are sick. Particularly when it comes to medical terminology and describing your symptoms in a precise manner. All you really want to know is what is wrong with me and what can I do to fix it. Moreover, this can become dangerous when it comes to prescription medication. You want to be precisely certain exactly how and when to take it.
  4. Make some connections. Meet your neighbors, make friends. While it's nice to be social, it's also about having someone to call in an emergency. If you can't make it to the store for food or medication, you should have someone you can call who will help you out. 
  5. Finally, put all this information in your phone. Your doctor's number, the pharmacy, the friend you can rely on, and the local emergency number. You do not want to be searching for this, ever.

If you do all these things, when you do get sick, all you have to focus on is getting better.

As a side note, for those worried about getting sick on a shorter trip, such as a couple weeks abroad, the advice is basically a shorter version of this list. Pack your OTC meds, and if you need a doctor, try to find one who speaks your native language. Finding a doctor can be done through your hotel, expat organizations, student organizations, or plain old Google. Finding a doctor in advance of every trip is a bit overkill unless you have a chronic condition that needs frequent doctor's attention.