UMBC Across the Sea: Tips for being sick abroad
Though foreign medical care may be just as good as what exists in the United States, cultural differences can make it harder to use. Photo by Nate Stewart.

UMBC Across the Sea: Tips for being sick abroad

Being sick is rarely an enjoyable experience. While a brief break from the daily grind to lay in bed seems nice, being forced out of one’s daily routine by debilitating pain, fever or nausea is not as welcome. While studying abroad, sickness becomes an even greater inconvenience, as one must focus not only on getting better but also must contend with communicating across vastly different medical cultures.

Different countries have different measures needed to prevent sickness. For instance, in South Korea there are frequent clouds of pollution — called “microdust” — that can cause colds and headaches. To prevent illness, one must stay inside with windows closed or wear a special mask on days with poor air quality.

Many foreigners who do not know or do not care about this will often fall ill. Even if a foreigner does know the danger, they may fail to wear the correct type of mask. Aside from the special filtration masks available for microdust, medical masks and fashion masks are sold near these filter masks and are often mistaken for each other. However, they are not interchangeable, and wearing a mask not designed to filter the dust will not provide meaningful protection.

Aside from preventive medicine, medicine for treatment can be hard to obtain as well. In the United States, a bad cold is generally treated with medicine like NyQuil or cough drops. These things are not as common in foreign pharmacies.

In South Korea, cough drops are not the candy-coated menthol lozenges Americans tend to think of but are instead zinc-based rings which resemble lifesavers. Instead of bottles of cough syrup, special herbal health teas are more common.

These differences make it harder to identify the correct medicine on the shelf but can be avoided by a preemptive tour of a foreign pharmacy. Having a native friend act as a guide for navigating pharmacies can be a significant boon to this end, but even a solo exploration can be effective if done patiently and methodically.

Lastly, it is essential to be familiar with local medical infrastructure and emergency services. In many places there are specialized clinics to deal with foreign patients and regular clinics may refer foreigners to those. It is better then to identify these international clinics and go there first, to avoid wasting the time waiting, only to be turned away.

On top of that, translating certain medical conditions like allergies or chronic illness into the local language beforehand and putting those on a card can help in many circumstances both in and out of a doctor’s office.

Aside from where to go to be treated in non-emergencies, emergency numbers and a working knowledge of emergency procedures are some of the first things a traveler should acquire in a new country. Most countries have different numbers for emergency services, and many have separate medical, police and fire numbers. Some countries do not have reliable ambulances, so knowing where hospitals are and how to get to them may be necessary.

Ultimately, illness abroad will always be more stressful than illness at home, but steps can be taken to make that less so. With foresight and preparation medical care can be made quicker and easier, allowing a speedy return to the adventures of studying abroad.