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Staying Healthy Abroad and What to Do if You *Do* Get Sick

by Claire Barkley

When we imagine what our time will be like studying abroad, we tend to think about the fun and adventurous times, but we rarely imagine what would happen if we were to get sick.

I hate to have to admit this, but I am the poster child for being sick while studying abroad: three sinus infections! Luckily, because of my study abroad program provider’s resources and having access to medicine in my host city, I was able to learn from my mistakes, make it through, and ultimately have an incredible experience.

If you’re at all worried about staying healthy abroad, I am here to give you some personal tips to help you stay happy and healthy during your travels and as you adjust to a new culture and country.


You Start to Feel Sick While Abroad — Now What?

I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain in the fall of 2018. About a week after I arrived, I got my first sinus infection. When you get sick abroad, the first thing you can do if your symptoms are manageable and self-diagnosable is to visit a local pharmacy and look for basic over the counter remedies.

Before you arrive in your respective country, it is important to note how stores are set up. For example, in Spain pharmacies are small stores, located on typically main streets and they are the only places that sell medicine. There is no CVS or a grocery store pharmacy over there, so when running errands or looking for over-the-counter drugs or medicine, make sure you know where your nearest pharmacy is.

If you study abroad in a non-English speaking country, another important thing to note is that their medicine is different. The medicine might do similar things as medicine from the United States, but it can be called something completely different.

AIFS Resources

If your symptoms fail to get better, the most important resource to utilize while abroad is your AIFS student health insurance card. AIFS provides a healthcare plan so I didn’t have to pay for any of my doctors visits. I only paid for the over-the-counter medicine I was prescribed.

In Madrid, there are many English-speaking doctors and clinics. I found a clinic online that had a great English-speaking doctor and I continued to return to the same person each time I got sick. He prescribed me effective antibiotics and helpful over-the-counter medicine and at-home remedies. 

For example, Dr. González told me to put three drops of eucalyptus oil into a pot of boiling water and inhale for about three minutes every morning and night. I had never been told to try his unique at-home remedy back in the United States, but it worked like a charm and I still do it at home whenever I feel congested!

Of course, if your symptoms continue to worsen, I would reach out to your Resident Director — each AIFS program has one. They will in-depth knowledge of local clinics or facilities, or can help you if you have any kind of a health emergency.

What to Bring From Home

I recommend you to bring any important or helpful medicines, over-the-counter drugs, or health aids. I packed everything from nasal sprays and allergy medications ahead of time because it isn’t always easy to find an exact equivalent abroad, especially in a different language. Communicating in foreign pharmacies can be a challenge. It took me about 20 minutes to properly translate “sore throat due to nasal congestion” to a Spanish pharmacist, but eventually we understood each other!

Even if you have strong confidence in your immune system, I still strongly recommend that you bring Advil, decongestant medicine such as Mucinex or Sudafed, Emergen-C, and multi-vitamins. If you suffer from asthma or only get asthma when you are sick, consider packing an inhaler. I found that adapting to a big city, a new culture, and sharing spaces with others presents an opportunity for new germs to spread.


Weekday Tips

Once you’re settled into your apartment or homestay, it is important to remember to give yourself time to rest. During the week, it can be tempting to pack your day with long days and late nights, but it is okay — and vital to your health — to take a sick day if it’s needed. It’s also okay to just stay in and read a book or watch a movie. 

Living in a new country for just a semester might fly by and we often feel a need to make the most of every day, but it is important to focus on your health first. If your body is telling you to stay in, stay in. 

Here are a few tips that will help you to listen to your body and maintain a healthy routine while abroad.

1. Exercise

One helpful tip to keep in mind during your semester is to keep up some kind of exercise into your daily routine.  A great perk to living in countries that don’t rely as heavily on car transportation is that exercising regularly doesn’t always mean joining a gym. Choose to walk somewhere instead of taking the metro, go on a hike on a weekend trip, find a cool park and go for a quick jog. 

2. Eat Fresh and Local

Another tip is to experiment with healthy foods in the country you are visiting and living in.  Skip the McDonalds and try out that cool local corner restaurant. Check out the fresh produce at the market on your walk home, and enjoy fresh fruits with your breakfast.

3. Mind the Weather

Be prepared for any kind of weather.  Bring a small umbrella in your bookbag or have a raincoat on hand. Make sure to always check the forecast, because there might be an unexpected cold-front or rainstorm. Especially in cities where you rely on on-foot transportation, dressing for the weather is key. If there is a cold front, make sure you have a thick jacket that keeps you nice and warm.

4. Practice Clean Habits

In your room, make sure you sweep and clean frequently — especially if you are in an apartment and don’t have a host parent to assist in keeping things tidy. For example, my apartment bedroom collected dust easily and I have a sensitivity to that. I had to sweep my room almost every day in order to not have to worry about breathing in dust.

5. Stay Hydrated.

A simple way to do this is to carry around a water bottle. It can be easy to get dehydrated in Europe or other countries where they don’t serve water for free at restaurants and have a handful of public water fountains. Being dehydrated is easy when you’re traveling, jet lagged, or tired, so drink lots of water and you’ll help yourself stay healthy abroad.

Staying Healthy While Traveling

A perk of studying abroad, for many, is the ability to travel to different cities and countries almost every other weekend.  Traveling every weekend can be hard when you’re trying to stay healthy abroad, though, as you are exposed to many germs. Make sure you sleep a lot, hydrate, and wash your hands during your adventures. Bring a hand sanitizer for any metro, bus, or airport travel.  Next, make sure you dress for the weather — don’t make any assumptions. Your destination could be a lot different than you expect. I made that mistake when I traveled to Belgium and faced a brutal and unexpected cold-front. 

When traveling, know that it is okay to go to sleep early and wake up early in order to have energy to see the city the next day. If you stay out super late, your body will be extra tired from traveling, and you’ll most likely sleep in and miss most of the day in a new city. Overworking your body on a weekend trip is an easy way to run down your immune system.

Be sure to bring whatever medicine you might need when you travel. For example, you may want to bring Advil or a Sudafed if you are sensitive to air pressure when flying. Also, you can keep a mini first-aid kit in your backpack or travel bag (in order to be prepared for blisters, etc.).

Lastly, be mindful when booking your flights. Low-budget airlines may mean flying at irregular hours, which means you may arrive a number of hours before you can check into your accommodations. This can make your weekend more tiring. Again, carrying around your bags in a new city with little sleep is a fast way to run you down.


Overall, you should be extremely excited to go overseas! I can confidently say that if I had planned ahead, I would have been better prepared for an unexpected sick day and staying healthy abroad. If you take it one day at a time, listen to your body, and take advantage of the amazing resources AIFS provides, you’ll have a healthy and happy experience, just like me!

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