When You Get Sick in a Foreign Country

Nobody really likes getting sick. You lose your physical energy, your motivation to do anything, and it’s just downright uncomfortable.

But what’s even worse is when you get sick while you’re away from your home country.

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There’s a saying that goes, “You don’t really learn to appreciate something until it’s gone.” This is especially true of our health! But it can also be said of the peace of mind that comes with our access to Western medical care.

When we’re in our home countries, we have a plethora of options available to us whenever we get sick. We can go to a pharmacy/drugstore, visit a medical clinic, or (in the most extreme cases) we can go to a hospital.

But when you’re living in a foreign country, especially one with a vastly different healthcare system, you quickly realize that many of the options that would be readily accessible in your home country are no longer available! You can’t simply drive over to the nearest pharmacy or local clinic.

There was one time in China when I wasn’t feeling well and a Chinese friend went to a local medicine shop and purchased some drugs for me. Each daily dosage was individually wrapped in thick paper, but there was no labeling anywhere. It was just the pills, so I had no idea what drugs I was taking!

Foreigners also have the added obstacle of communication. Unless you’ve managed to learn the necessary medical lingo, you’re going to have to get very creative when it comes to describing your condition.

Last fall, I had the unfortunate experience of contracting a gastrointestinal infection while in China. It was basically a bacteria infection that made my stomach hurt like crazy. I’ll spare you the details of my symptoms, but let’s just say that our bathroom received extra visits that week.

When my health didn’t improve after two consecutive days of bed rest, I decided to visit one of the local hospitals in order to get examined. Thankfully, I had the help of two friends who could speak Chinese. Without them there was no way that I would have been able receive the appropriate care and understand the eventual diagnosis.

Another health-related issue that we foreigners may have to get accustomed to is the overall cleanliness of the country, particularly when it comes to poorer nations. Standards of cleanliness in China, for instance, are significantly lower than they are in the West. Floors are in general quite dirty, and tap water isn’t safe to drink unless boiled first.

Whenever I or someone I know has gotten sick in China, I’ve usually blamed it on the country. I often think it must be because it’s so dirty here, or because the air pollution is so bad. And to some extent that’s probably true.

But I think a more accurate reality is that it simply takes our bodies time to acclimatize to our new environment. For some, our bodies adapt quickly. For others, it takes a lot longer. When I spent two months in China last year, I was sick half the time. But since moving to China four months ago, I’ve stayed healthy the entire time.

Of course, while your body is adjusting, there’s no need to cross your fingers and hope you don’t get sick. There are lots of easy things we can do to maintain our health.

For example, my wife and I like to cook at home as often as possible. I live in a country where it’s very cheap and convenient to eat out. And while we absolutely love Chinese food, we also know that we can cook much healthier food at home.

Another thing we do is exercise regularly, usually 2-3 times per week. Whether it’s doing push-ups and sit-ups at home or going for a run along the river, we find that staying physically active helps improve our sleep as well as maintain overall health.

Will I ever get sick again? Probably. But at least I know that I’m doing the best I can do avoid another visit to the hospital!

Have you ever gotten sick outside your home country? What did you do to get better? What changes have you made to your lifestyle in order to stay healthy?

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32 thoughts on “When You Get Sick in a Foreign Country

  1. Thankfully you knew some friends who knew how to help you at the doctors! You could have dangerously been mis-diagnosed. Or worse, found yourself being operated on in a hospital for a reason unknown to you…. I hear restaurants in China often use recycled oil to cook food, so you have to be careful of where you go to eat or else risk getting sick.

    I’ve gotten sick almost every time I’ve been back in Malaysia (for a month or two of holidays at a stretch). Usually my stomach ulcers flare up because of the oily street food there, and eating food becomes difficult. I usually just put up with this like a hero until I get back to Australia. I have been sick with high fevers in Malaysia a few times too on these holidays, and had no choice but to go to the doctor here – and paid a lot of money for it because I’m a foreigner. It pays to be healthy. It really does.

    • Yeah, even though I felt like my body was imploding, I had enough sense to ask the doctor lots of questions. He told me that I should have gone to hospital earlier, which was slightly concerning when I heard that. It took me a full week before I fully recovered.

      You’re right about being careful about which restaurants to eat at! The health standards in China sometimes seems to be non-existent (at least according to my Western mind). Most street-side restaurants have super dirty kitchens.

      Speaking of poor restaurant standards, did you hear about the McDonalds meat scandal? Did McD’s in Australia also have to recall a bunch of their menu items?

      You get sick for a month at a time? That sounds awful!

      • Haha, body imploding! I guess that’s what we all feel when we get sick. A lot of the time “dirty” kitchens are normal to Asians in Asia. For instance, to them a wet kitchen is perfectly normal when to someone from the Western world, that is not the case.

        Oh yes, the McD and KFC scandal. How horrible, expired meat. Australia’s fast-food chains were okay, thankfully. Currently our McD have $1 cheeseburger promotions…but eating too much of that will most certainly make you sick!

    • I remember that it was normal to have a bad bad stomach at least once a month in China. I guess the ‘hawker’ style street food in Malaysia isn’t that healthy… though it tastes soooo good! Some sort of balance has to be taken, right? Negotiate with stomach and taste buds =)

      • It’s actually also common to get a bad stomach every now and then eating Malaysia’s hawker food 😉 It has happened to me before a few times when I’m back on holiday here. But these terrible experiences have not put me off eating street food. Sometimes taste wins.

      • Heheh… that’s my problem with chocolate… taste wins. =)

        I love Malaysian food!!!! I miss all that sorta stuff here… my mum was so sweet, when my brothers visited she made them lug a whole suitcase full of spices and sauces so I could cook her food. Then she sent me recipes. =) My tastebuds very much appreciated it!

        Do you miss the street food culture when living in Melbourne?

      • You know what? I actually don’t miss much of Malaysian street food living in Melbourne. I’ve had stomach problems over the years and I’m forced to eat non-oily, non-spicy foods. So I’ve gotten used to eating bland foods. However, I miss eating popiah and congee a lot. A LOT!

  2. I think I have been sick (really sick, in bed) just one time that I can remember. I was 19 and I got the flu. Apart from that I am incredibly healthy, taking into account I am a lazy bum, I don’t exercise and I eat a lot outside…

    In China the only thing I’ve had in 7 years was “red eye”. Surely because of the pollution in Beijing…

      • It looks pretty nasty and it is very itchy, but it is not too serious. I think it lasted for 3 or 4 days and the worst part was that I was living in a students dorm with shared bathroom in the middle of the corridor, my room was very far and every morning I had to go to the bathroom with my eyes closed (I couldnt open them, the doctor gave me an ointment which was very sticky and glued my eyes together! So I had to go wash my face like a blind person hahah).

      • That sounds like quite the adventure! Did anyone else help you or did you just get very good at memorizing the trek to the bathroom? What did you do the rest of the day? Just lie in bed?

      • I was going by myself :_ It was a straight corridor, haha.

        Nah, I went to class as usual, the ointment was only to be applied at night and it would be washed off in the morning.

      • Good thing! I can’t imagine having to keep my eyes closed all day. Were there any long-term effects from getting red eye, or did everything clear up perfectly?

      • No long term effects whatsoever, it is just an inflammation of some membrane in the eye and once it is gone you dont even remember it (thank god!)

  3. I never really got any health problems thus far during my trips to China except once when I got first a sore throat and shortly later even fever. The local doctor wanted that I take some infusions into my blood stream but I was against that and so I got also those different pills wraped in paper. Well, those pills didnt help me much in the end as I got fever so I believe I should have taken that infusion as my wife did and she got healthy within a day! However I was against it back then as I have learned that this step should be usually the last option…Lesson learned, next time I will do what the Chinese doctor recommends!

    • Yeah, the sore throat was the number one health problem my wife and I experienced last year. We’ve since found that taking oil of oregano works great in counteracting the symptoms. Sometimes I’ll take it preemptively, if I feel a sore throat coming on. It seems to do the trick!

      By infusions, do mean having an IV in your arm? We often walk by street-side clinics where you can see people lying on beds next to IVs. It was definitely quite the sock when I first saw them!

  4. The first time I felt truly alone was my within my first month in China and getting sick…and boy I missed just about everything about home. Great post, brought back those memories ~ which I can now smile about. Cheers.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you can smile about the memories, too.

      It’s hard enough getting sick when you’re traveling (or living) with someone. I’ve never traveled in China by myself, so I can imagine how difficult it must be if you’re doing it alone and get sick. 😛

  5. The first time I went to China for a two year stay in 2003, I almost never got sick. Just the occasional food poisoning, but once I quit eating meat it was never a problem. However, when I went back again for another two years in 2012, I spent the second half of first year pretty much sick all the time. When I began getting sick all the time it was also when the pollution suddenly got a lot worse and stayed that way for a few months. I definitely think that pollution has something to do with it, probably impacting our immune system’s ability to fight off illness.

    • That’s interesting that giving up on meat helped prevent sickness for you in 2003. Did you resume eating meat when you came back to China in 2012, or did you keep it off your diet?

      We generally will only buy chicken if we’re buying meat. Actually, when it comes to cooking for ourselves, eggs tend to be our biggest source of protein. But when we eat out, we definitely don’t hold back on the meat dishes! 😀

      • I still don’t eat meat, even when I’m in the states. It just works for me, helps keep weight off and forces me to eat more fruits and vegetables.

      • Good for you! I know that would be incredibly hard for me to do, since I enjoy eating meat so much. But I do appreciate the moments when I eat a vegetable-heavy meal that has no meat. 😀

  6. I’ve been sick half the time I’ve been in China with one thing or another. Yunnan is one of the poorest provinces, though, so cleanliness in places I visit is highly lacking. Something to be Really careful about is shared needles at the hospital. Aids spreads so quickly here! I know a Chinese couple who contracted it, we assume from needles. Even if you bring your own sterilizer before they stick a needle into you, it’s better than risking a life-threatening disease. This is something else we normally don’t have to worry about in western countries. Also, in the USA, you tend to have private rooms, especially for the ICU. In China, the ICU consists of many beds in one room. I was just visiting there often for 2 weeks seeing my friend who had TB. And despite the signs, people still smoked in there! Also, I’ve been mis-diagnosed by Chinese doctors before. I went to 3 different doctors, who told me 3 different possibilities of problems. I’ve found the best thing to do is keep western antibiotics and meds at my house, and self-medicate as much as possible.

    • Yikes! Your hospitals don’t dispose of used needles? When I went to the hospital last year, they took a blood sample from what appeared to be a sterile needle.

      My foreign friend told me that one thing Chinese people do really well (at least at this particular hospital) is taking blood samples. Because there are designated people who ONLY take blood, they get really good at it. And he wasn’t kidding – I barely felt anything when they took my blood. It was quick and mostly painless!

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had poor experiences with Chinese doctors. It seems like unless you live in a major city in China, your medical care is going to be extremely limited. My wife and I also keep on hand our own supply of health supplements and various homeopathic remedies so we can save ourselves the trouble of visiting Chinese clinics.

  7. That’s good you had two Chinese friends accompany you to the hospital. Going in there alone can be like a battlefield–getting a number, waiting in line, figuring out how to pay–it’s just so different!

    I have rarely had positive experiences at Chinese hospitals. I noticed many hospitals in Shanghai recommended me to take multiple tests which, I thought, were unnecessary. Chinese hospitals will often try to keep you overnight in the hospital with an IV–just for the common flu (or even cold!). If you have company sponsored insurance, they really want to squeeze as much as they can from you.

    I also get upset when I go to a western hospital and they give me Chinese medicine. It’s happened multiple times and is absolutely infuriating. Chinese medicine isn’t proven to work, and even if it does it can take 2-3x longer to kick in and have effect than regular medicine.

    Getting sick in China is awful! I think your plan of cooking at home is a great way of avoiding that–once I started doing that my health improved drastically.

    Also, I recommend getting a shower filter. I was losing hair like crazy in Shanghai and I went to the doctor multiple times. The doctor told me it was genetic, but no one on either side of my family has hair loss. When I got a shower filter my hair not only stopped falling out–but the white filter turned black (like, black black) after only one week of use. It was crazy.

    Anyway, stay in good health!! And nice blog!

    • Thanks for visiting, Mary! Hope to see you around more often. 😀

      You’re so right! Chinese hospitals are so different than ones that we’re used to. We also have the disadvantage (in this case) of looking Asian. When my wife had to go to the hospital, our foreign friend went with her…and her “foreign face” definitely helped expedite the process!

      You went to a Western hospital in China and they gave you Chinese medicine? That doesn’t seem to make much sense!

      Thanks for the recommendation! I actually was seriously interested in getting a shower filter before we moved to China, but since we’ve arrived that’s dropped down my priority list. What brand(s) do you recommend?

    • Oh my god Mary that’s so gross! My friend was living in Cangzhou (one of the most polluted places in China), and his hair started falling out too! I didn’t say anything when I met up with him because I thought it was premature balding. A few weeks later he noticed and started freaking out! Then a new foreign teacher came to the school and her hair started falling out too! I wish I would have known to recommend the filter. I think if my hair started falling out I probably wouldn’t notice because I have so much of it… hahaha

  8. I can definitely relate with you on this one. I got an intestinal infection and I had the opposite problem! My intestines were swollen so I couldn’t go to the bathroom for days. I also had really sharp, debilitating pains, and was super nauseous. Thankfully I lived in Beijing at the time so I could go to the foreign hospital and meet with an American doctor who fixed me eventually. I don’t know what I would have done if that happened where I’m living now. I went in for bronchitis and I had no idea what was going on (and I speak Chinese!).

    A quick tip about the pills in China: you should see some numbers on the side like 3片2次- in that case you’d take 3 pills 2X a day. Look for those characters with the numbers and you’ll know exactly how many to take now 🙂

    • Oh man, that sounds horrible! Good thing you had access to a foreign doctor. How long were you sick before you went to the hospital?

      Thanks for the tip about Chinese pills! I don’t remember seeing any characters or numbers on the pills that I took, but that could’ve been because I was a little delirious at the time. 😛

  9. It’s a little funny to read this because as a kid and teenager, one of the reasons I most dreaded furloughs & visits to the States were because I would get sick every time. It wasn’t a cold or the flu, but several weeks of intense gastro issues and nausea. Up until after I moved here for uni, I always felt vaguely nauseated just at the thought of the US, because it was so markedly associated with sickness in my mind. I’ve found that after the first few weeks, my body seems to switch over and adjust to foods here. I do much better when I cook from scratch, and while my body no longer responds as violently if I eat processed foods from the store on occasion, I still avoid them whenever possible.

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