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What to do if you get sick or hurt on vacation
No one wants to feel unwell when they’re traveling. But it’s a good idea to know where to get care in case you do.
Getting sick on vacation can seem like a dose of bad luck. You’re having a great time and suddenly you don’t feel well. Maybe you’ve picked up a nasty stomach bug or a fever you can’t shake.
“No one expects to get sick on vacation. But it can happen,” says Bonnie Simmons, DO, a Brooklyn-based ER doctor and chief medical officer for Optum Tri-State Urgent Care. Injuries can happen when you’re traveling too.
No illness or injury is fun, whether it’s minor or serious. But it doesn’t have to ruin your vacation.
For one thing, technology has made it easier than ever to find care almost anywhere. For certain conditions, you have options like virtual visits and local urgent care centers.
If you have a smartphone or a tablet, you can set up virtual visits right from your hotel room or vacation house. Or you can search for an urgent care center near where you’re staying.
You can also store important health information in your smartphone so you have it at your fingertips when you’re away from home.
Here’s what you need to know about your care choices while traveling. Plus, learn some great ways to stay healthy on the road.
What are my health care choices while traveling?
Where you go for care might depend on what kind of illness or injury you’re dealing with. Hospitals are always an option. But they can come with higher costs and longer wait times than some other care options. And it’s far more likely that you won’t need a hospital visit. Hospitals are best for true emergencies.
Of course, if you’re facing a life-threatening emergency, go right to the closest emergency room or call 911. (If you’re traveling outside the U.S., check what the local emergency number is there.)
Examples of health emergencies include:1
- Chest pain or pressure in your chest
- Signs of a stroke, such as sudden onset of:2
- Numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg
- Confusion or trouble speaking
- Trouble seeing out of one or both eyes
- Dizziness, loss of balance or trouble walking
- Difficulty breathing
- Sudden or new confusion or fainting
- Poisoning or overdose of drugs or alcohol
- Serious injuries, including heavy bleeding or large open wounds
- Severe burns
- Severe headache
You’ll need to get care quickly in these situations. Your best choice is to go right to the hospital or call 911.
If it’s not a true emergency, you may have other options that may cost less than an emergency room visit. Dr. Simmons recommends asking a local about nearby care options. For example, your hotel front desk can be a good resource.
Here are some other places you can turn to for health care while you’re traveling.
#1: Nurse hotline
Calling a nurse hotline is a great first step. You can call from anywhere, and many hotlines are 24/7.
You’ll talk to a nurse or other health care professional on the phone and describe your symptoms. They can give you advice on where to go for care if needed. Or, they can suggest some home remedies.
Before traveling, check your health plan to see if it has a nurse hotline. If it does, save the number on your phone before you leave for your trip. That way you’ll be prepared if you need it. You can always log in to your health plan’s website to find the number. It may also be on your member ID card.
Looking for a doctor who gets you? We have more than 60,000 doctors at more than 2,000 sites. Our team will help you get the care you need, when and where you need it. Find care near you.
#2: Virtual care and telehealth
You can’t learn the cause of your sickness or get medicine from a nurse hotline. But you might be able to through a telehealth appointment with a doctor.3
Telehealth appointments allow a medical professional to diagnose on the phone or a video call. And they can prescribe certain medications, if needed. They can call it in to a pharmacy near where you are staying so that you can pick it up locally. Check out Optum Virtual Care to get started.
You can also call your family doctor’s office. You might be able to set up a virtual or phone appointment with a provider there. Since the pandemic began, more doctor’s offices and clinics offer virtual care.
#3: Retail health clinic
Rather see someone in person? One simple way is to see if there is a walk-in center nearby.
You can find these clinics inside some bigger chain drugstores or other retail stores. So there’s a good chance you’ll find one wherever you’re traveling. But, you might want to check ahead to see what can and can’t be treated at the nearest clinic.
You often don’t need an appointment. Plus, if you are prescribed a medication, the pharmacy is often right there in the store. You can easily pick up your medicine there.
#4: Urgent care center
You can also get in-person care at urgent care centers.4 You don’t usually need an appointment, and some are open 24 hours. These centers can treat a broad range of illnesses and injuries. They may be your first stop for more serious health issues that don’t require an emergency room visit. For example, some have X-ray machines and can diagnose and treat broken bones. They can help you set up a follow up appointment with a specialist, too, if needed.
So where should you go for care?
The important thing is that you seek care as soon as possible, says Dr. Simmons. Whichever place you choose, the healthcare provider you talk to can help you figure out what to do next.
“Let us figure out the next steps for you,” says Dr. Simmons. “At our urgent care, we see everybody. Sometimes it’s the right choice. Sometimes the patient should have gone to another level of care. But it doesn’t matter.” Wherever you go, medical providers can help you decide what to do next. They can even have an ambulance pick you up right from the urgent care center if needed.
Before you leave for your trip, check with your health plan to understand your care choices. Find out if they offer a nurse hotline or virtual care. Take note of how to reach them. And ask about costs. You can also look up local hospitals and clinics where you’ll be. Then mark them on your map.
What if you’re traveling internationally?
Before you leave on your trip, do some research. Find out if your health plan offers coverage for medical care overseas.5 If not, you can consider buying travel health insurance to cover yourself in case you get sick. That’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends.6
This type of insurance may be a particularly good idea if you have a chronic condition or will be doing adventure activities such as hiking.
It’s also a good idea to make sure you’re up to date on your routine vaccines, says the CDC. You can check your destination for country-specific health risks. (The CDC has an easy-to-use health destination tool.)
What can I do to prepare for my trip?
You can get ready by making sure you bring any medicines you might need with you. “Don’t forget to bring your prescribed medications and be sure you have enough for your whole trip,” says Dr. Simmons. Especially if you’re traveling to another country. “Refilling medicines outside the country can be difficult. Sometimes you can’t even get them,” she says. Pack these medicines in your carry on in case your checked bags get lost.
Handy tip: Snap a photo of each prescription label with your smartphone. That way you’ll have the information with you in case you lose your medication while traveling. Also keep a list of your medications, allergies and medical conditions if needed in an emergency.
It’s a good idea to bring some over-the-counter (OTC) medicines with you, too.
These OTC medicines can help with minor troubles if they happen:7
- Antacids (such as Tums®)
- Antihistamines for allergies (like Benadryl®)
- Cough drops or a cough suppressant
- Diarrhea medicine (Imodium® or Pepto-Bismol®)
- Gentle laxative or stool softener
- Gentle sedative or sleep aid (like Unisom®)
- Motion sickness medicine (like Dramamine®)
- Pain and fever medicine (like Tylenol® or Advil®) (Dr. Simmons recommends bringing both. They work well together, and have less side effects than prescription pain meds)
Having OTC medicines in your suitcase or purse can help you with minor troubles such as headaches, upset stomach and hay fever.
You can stock up on these meds and more online at the Optum Store. Start exploring.
Now that you know how to stay healthy on your trip, you can do the easy part: Have fun.
- MedlinePlus. When to use the emergency room — adult. Reviewed July 24, 2022. Accessed March 9, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stroke signs and symptoms. Reviewed May 4, 2022. Accessed April 11, 2023.
- Health Resources and Services Administration. What is Telehealth? Last updated June 29, 2022. Accessed March 29, 2023.
- American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine. What is Urgent Care Medicine? N.d. Accessed March 29, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health Care During Travel. Reviewed November 20, 2022. Accessed March 29, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Travel insurance. Reviewed November 2, 2022. Accessed March 29, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pack Smart. Reviewed January 22, 2019. Accessed March 9, 2023.
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