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February 19th, 2010
08:20 PM ET

Even on a grand adventure, take care of your health

By Rebecca Leibowitz
CNN Medical News Intern

Imagine waking up in a hospital in excruciating pain, barely able to breathe, swallow, or speak. Sound scary? Now imagine you’re in a foreign country, surrounded by doctors and nurses you cannot understand, thousands of miles away from your family and friends. My friend Sam found himself in this terrifying situation during his semester studying abroad in Prague , Czech Republic.

Sam had come down with strep throat, mononucleosis, and tonsillitis all at the same time. An eight-day hospital stay later, he was still so ill he was forced to return home to St. Louis, Missouri, two weeks before he had originally planned. Sam is fine now, but as I prepare for my own study abroad trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, his story has left me wondering: What should I – and others planning a trip out of the country – do to protect our health and safety while abroad?

Before you buy your plane ticket: Have a conversation with your primary care physician. Tell him or her where you plan to travel, and any activities (like hiking, biking, or mountain climbing) you want to do that may affect your physical health. Make sure you are healthy enough to travel, and that you heed your doctor’s advice that may be based on your personal health history.

A month before you leave: Get vaccinated! Check the cdc.gov Web site for a list of vaccinations you’re required (or encouraged) to get based on the parts of the world you plan on visiting.

Call your insurance company and find out what its policy is for covering members traveling outside the United States. Ask specifically what they do and do not cover. (Hospital stays? Medical procedures? An early plane ticket home?) If you feel it is necessary, you can purchase supplemental insurance.

A week or two before you leave: Do your research. The State Department’s travel.state.gov and the country’s own embassy Web site are great resources. There, you can find out all the information you need – from what happens if there is an emergency in the country to what to do if you’re the victim of a crime. Don’t forget to check whether the water is safe to drink!

If you take any prescription medications, make sure to obtain enough to last you for the entire time you’re abroad. Many overseas pharmacies will not fill American prescriptions. While you’re picking up your medications, purchase over-the-counter remedies for cold, flu, and traveler’s diarrhea to pack with you.

While you’re abroad: Be sensible. Take the necessary precautions if you’re travelling to areas that appear unsanitary or where certain diseases are endemic. Carry your health insurance information with you at all times, and make sure you know how to contact your insurance company if you have any medical issues.

In the unfortunate event that you do get sick abroad, seek medical attention immediately. In Sam’s case, he ignored his cough and stuffy nose for about a week before his symptoms became far more serious. He got caught up in the excitement of his international adventure and in the process lost sight of his health. Don’t make the same mistake!


soundoff (8 Responses)
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    Are my concerns valid?

    February 21, 2010 at 13:25 | Report abuse | Reply
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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.