Travel is by far the best way I spend my time. Apart from the obvious excitement that comes with exploring a new destination (or returning to a favourite spot), travel has so many health and happiness benefits, the internet is riddled with articles about it – here, here and here, for example.
But travel can take it’s toll, too. I feel like I’ve written an increasing number of health focused articles on here in the past couple of years making me realise that when we use our bodies often, dragging then around the globe, feeding then curious, sometimes unidentifiable foodstuffs, taking them up volcanoes and jumping out of planes, we’re bound to encounter a bit more damage than we might do just sitting on the sofa.
Don’t get me wrong, an active life is far superior to a sedentary one and an active life that encompasses travel, even more so (IMO), but a recent trip to the doctor, which resulted in a very surprising diagnosis (see number 10 below), left me recounting all the health scrapes I’ve gotten into on my travels. Because some of them are borderline amusing and others are what we might call ‘teachable moments’ (a.k.a. don’t be as stupid as me), I thought I’d share them.
Update for 2020 – may as well add a number 11 to the list – that time I got Dengue Fever in Mexico. You can read about it here together with my trips for what to do if you get dengue fever when you travel (and how NOT to get it!)
10 Times Travel Made Me Sick
1. The St Lucia flight that gave me a dysfunctional eustachian tube
I’m starting with this one because it’s the first time travel made me sick. It was some time ago, back in my lawyer days and I was flying home from St Lucia. I wasn’t in the best of health before my trip – my nan, who was one of the biggest influences in my life – hadn’t long died and grief had plummeted my immune system through the floor.
By the time I boarded the flight home I was a bag of nasally sniffles. Unfortunately, those sniffles did some damage. When my ear blocked on the plane, it decided to stay that way for the best part of 18 months. It turns out, I had an underlying problem with the structure in my nose (my septum had been pointing 90 degrees in the wrong direction for most/all (?) of my life) and when my sniffles decided to travel into my sinuses, a whole world of headaches, dizziness and nausea opened up. It took a year for the specialists to figure out what was wrong with me, including a scary mis-diagnosis or two along the way. Eventually, I had a septum operation that fixed about 75% of the problem. I still get blocked ears and pain on flights but I no longer start my day swaggering around with the dizziness of someone who’s on her 8th gin and tonic.
How to avoid it: most people are going to be ok (unless you have an underlying condition) but it’s always good to boost your immune system with fruit, veggies and water in the run up to a flight.
I also travel with ear planes, special ear plugs to stop my ears blocking – you can find them on my list of flight packing essentials.
2. The Brazilian plant that was like a 1,000 mosquito bites
“Whatever your do, don’t let this plant touch your skin,” my guide said, “it’s like being bitten by 1,000 mosquitoes”. We were deep in the Pantanal in Brazil and my guide’s voice dragged me away from my treetop monkey spotting.
“Which plant?” I asked, keen to heed what sounded like excellent advice.
“That one,” he said, looking at me and pointing at the plant I was standing on.
Oh. That one.
The picture doesn’t quite do it justice but do know that my legs were stop-and-point inflamed for over a week.
Thank you to my Brazilian friend who played down how horrifying my legs were, took me to a pharmacy and helped me buy some calming cream.
How to avoid it: step where your guide steps. Also, thin leggings are not sufficient leg protection for hiking in exotic locations. Wear something more robust like proper travel trousers for outdoor hikes even if they don’t look good. Your body will thank you in the long run.
3. The Mexican illness I thought was Malaria
The first time I visited Mexico was on my first solo trip around the world trip. I travelled by land from South America, up through Central America, finally arriving in the country I would come to visit time and again – Mexico. It was an exciting journey from Guatemala than involved travelling in part by boat. It was a journey I’d like to do again because I’m not sure I remember it accurately, delirious as I was.
Courtesy of too many night buses in freezing a/c I’d been fighting a cold for weeks but this time I developed a fever, severe muscle aches and myriad other symptoms that convinced me I was dying of malaria. Foolishly, getting into a taxi at the end of my journey from Guatemala I chose to travel to my room which was in a remote location rather than find a doctor. I was desperate to lie down, not thinking straight and in all of my solo travels, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alone.
I slept for an entire day and when I woke I messaged my mum. From thousands of miles away she suggested I take some of the antibiotics I’d been carrying for emergencies. “If you don’t feel a bit better by tomorrow, go to a doctor!” Fortunately, the antibiotics started to do the trick – it was just a bad case of flu.
How to avoid it: on the malaria front, prevention is the best cure. You can read my post about the best mosquito sprays here. Above all else, get to a doctor even if you think you’re wrong, even if you’re alone and even if you’re too sick to move – especially if you’re too sick to move.
4. The Nicaraguan shoeless volcano climb
You might think there is a theme to my injuries, namely, my stupidity and you’re right – many of these illnesses and injuries could have been prevented if I’d been a bit more careful. But anyway, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
I’ve told this story of my shoeless volcano climb before. You can read about it here.
How to avoid it: always check the terrain you’re going to hike and wear the right footwear. You can read my tips for choosing the best travel shoes here.
5. The shigella I acquired in Myanmar
This one wasn’t my fault. You can be as cautious as you want and still get stomach sick when you travel. I’ve had food related stomach illness more than once on my travels. Yes, I got Delhi belly in India but I also got oyster poisoning in Scotland and food poisoning in a Michelin star restaurant in Europe, so it’s not just developing countries that pose a risk.
However, the sickness I acquired in Myanmar was one I bought home. Between being in Myanmar for almost a month and the weeks back home hoping things would get better (and, frankly, wanting to avoid having to provide a ‘sample’), I had shigella for about 5-6 weeks. By the time my doctor got my results back, I’d started to form my own anti-bodies and I was advised me to ride it out if I could. The worst being over, I did just that but it’s not something I’d want to do again. Ever.
How to avoid it: if you know the answer to this, let me know. As I’ve said, you can get stomach sick in a fancy restaurant in Europe so avoiding the street food and seeking out high end restaurants offers no guarantees. I do try to increases my good-bacteria with plenty of yoghurt and probiotics before I travel in the hope that might help.
6. The time I lost my eyesight in Colombia
I never got to the bottom of what happened to my eyes in Colombia – it was certainly related to my contact lenses but within a day of arriving in Cali (salsa capital of Colombia – the dance, not the sauce), my eyes became painful. At first I thought it was conjunctivitis but the goo (sorry for the visual) didn’t arrive. I was just afflicted with a burning pain that made my eyes red and sore while constantly streaming. Sunlight made it worse, which isn’t something you can generally switch off in Colombia.
Once again, my mum came to the rescue (a girl is never to old to need her mum, especially when she gets sick) – I asked her to do some internet research for me because I couldn’t see my phone screen. The best advice we came up with was to keep my contact lenses out, avoid the sun, keep my eyes clean – something I was doing with saline drops – and go to a doctor if it didn’t clear up.
For two days I lay in a hammock unable to move or do anything of any real use. Sightseeing was out, as was daylight activities. I napped a lot, discovered the benefits of Audible (given I was unable to read) and discovered that pizza is one of the easier things to eat when you can barely see. Lucky the problem cleared up on its own but it was a scary couple of days.
How to avoid it: keep your contact lenses ultra clean. I confess, I’d become a bit lax – something I’ve since fixed.
7. The infected throat in Hawaii
I’d wanted to visit Hawaii for forever yet I spent my first days on Oahu in bed with a case of severe tonsillitis. It had been another case of too much travel lowering my immune system. Last minute, I’d flown from Mexico’s east coast to Mexico City, on to the west coast of the USA and then to Hawaii, with a bunch of airport hotels and changes in climate in between. My throat tightened with each new destination so that by the time I landed in Hawaii, I knew I needed to see a doctor.
By the time I figured out how to do that, my throat was so severely swollen I’d acquired (puss filled) pustules in my throat. Yep, I wasn’t thrilled to hear that either.
“We can admit you to hospital to have them syringed,” the doc advised me, “or we can give you a steroid shot.”
I bent over, pulled down my shorts and readied myself. Which was a bit awkward because apparently shots in the posterior only happen on TV.
“In your arm in fine.”
And fortunately it was fine. I don’t think I’ve ever gone from so sick to so well in such a short space of time. Flying on to Big Island to inhale the volcano smoke wasn’t the smartest follow-up activity but that’s another story.
How to avoid it: Sometimes only medication will do the trick. Make sure you have travel insurance, especially if you’re going within a million mile radius of the USA. You can read my post on why you need travel insurance here.
8. The ruptured knee ligament in the British Virgin Islands
Another tale I’ve already told, which you can read about here. Yes, I decided to bend my knee the wrong way on the sand in the BVIs. I don’t have many travel regrets but as it took me nearly two years from injury through surgery and then physio to get about 90% function back in my knee, I kinda wish I could go back and undo this one. Oh well.
How to avoid it: look after your knees! Keep them, and the rest of your body, strong – pump some iron between trips.
9. The epic hot tub tumble in Mexico
A picture speaks a 1,000 words so I’ll let the bruise picture above do the talking on this one. All I’d like to say is: wooden steps with no safety tread in a hot tub are a bad idea. I had only consumed one beer. And I will forever be cautious when I have wet feet. The outline of this bruise was still visible on my leg months later.
How to avoid it: pool shoes. Have them near you. Wear them.
10. The Vitamin D deficiency in England
This one threw me through a loop. After I injured my knee (see 8 above) I was forced to settle down for a while and I chose the UK. What can I say: free healthcare. Oh, and my friends, family and marmite. Obviously. But after six years of chasing the sun around the globe, I didn’t realise my body was going to react to my location change with a vitamin D deficiency.
When we (or at least I) think of a vitamin deficiency, I think of poor diet, not enough exercise and just generally being run down. Nothing that can’t be fixed with a few lifestyle changes and a multivitamin pill. So, vitamins didn’t really cross my mind as I got increasingly ill over the past year.
I can’t quite pinpoint when it started but I know that by last autumn I was drowning in fatigue. Not the low level tiredness we all have when we’re doing too much, I mean proper exhaustion. The kind where I’d wake up after 9 hours of sleep, drink 3 cups of coffee then have to lie down for a four hour nap. The kind where I spent 2 days in bed in Jo’burg when I arrived despite my brain telling me to get up and go out. It’s no surprise that with fatigue came a low mood.
I know that we all have low energy moments but this was prolonged and I could feel it in my bones. My actual bones. I’d already been to the doctor several times with arm pain, back pain and I rapidly added hip pain and finger pain to the list. By the time I went for blood tests, I was taking pain medication every day for what felt like a constant case of low-grate flu – an ache in my whole body and bones that just wouldn’t subside. With that, came a side-order of muscle weakness that meant I could barely lift my gym-bag let alone gym weights.
In the interim, I’d tried to boost my energy through diet. Alcohol became something other people drank and sugar disappeared the same way. Why wasn’t it making me brighter? Worse, I somehow developed insomnia. In the midst of the healthiest diet I’ve ever eaten, I could barely manage yoga for 15 minutes a week and the only time I felt awake was when I was trying to get to sleep.
I got a sun lamp, read uplifting books (while lying down) and was on the brink of quitting coffee (the only thing keeping me going) when I decided enough was enough. I suspected everything from SAD to depression to thyroid issues but the test results were a complete surprise.
“You’re vitamin D deficient. You’re not the worst I’ve ever seen but…”
How could that be? I travel. Professionally. I stick my face into the sun any chance I get. I’m cat-like that way.
“It could be your body got used to a certain amount of sun.”
Who’d have thought it? After all my years of travel, the fact that I wasn’t travelling as much could have such a negative effect on my health.
I suppose it’s all fun and plenty of vitamin D until you take it away.
Of course, I’ve jumped at the excuse to have a doctor prescribed ‘sun holiday’ and I’m currently spinning the globe to find somewhere hot. In the meantime, I’m on very high dose vitamin D tablets (to give you an idea, most one-a-day pharmacy tablets have 500iu and I’m taking 20,000iu of vitamin D a day).
The doc promised me I’d feel like a new woman within a few weeks, which boosted my spirits (until I had to lie down). It’s now been a week since I started popping them and I haven’t felt any different…until today.
This morning, I woke to my alarm at 7:30 a.m. and I didn’t feel the same fog that’s been following me since autumn. I didn’t spring out of bed but I didn’t have the same urgent need to nap two hours later. My mood is a bit brighter and I suddenly feel hopeful that this feeling of permanent fatigue might clear. I’m crossing my fingers and hoping I’ll be the new woman I’ve been promised (actually, just being the old version of me would be plenty good enough – I quite liked her, full of travel adventures and big worldly dreams). And the first thing I’m going to do is take that new (or former) woman to the beach.
How to avoid it: if you’re worried about your energy levels, get a blood test. Or try taking a multi-vitamin and see how you feel. Failing that, I can always recommend a sun holiday.
A few final health tips:
- of all the health advice out there, I can’t fault the NHS pages for great, non-alarmist health advice.
- the Web-MD pages (supplied by UK pharmacy, Boots) is a good alternative.
- and they have a very useful Fit for Travel page which helps you know which jabs you need for a particular country as well as an invaluable malaria map.
- This Travel Health app has helped me out more than once. (It was free when I downloaded it but I still think it’s worth paying a small fee for. I still use it 7 years later).
- if you’re worried about safety as much as your health, I also find the UK government’s travel advice more balanced than other countries (looking at you, USA).
So, that’s my list of the 10 times travel made me sick. What’s your worst travel sickness story? I’m almost too nervous to ask but you’ve sat through mine so let me know in the comments below…