Ways You’ll Most Likely Get Sick Abroad

March 6, 2014

Travel takes its toll on your health. As much as we’d like to believe that a vacation is a necessary mental health break for some in stressful jobs (and it can be), I’m amazed at how naive some people can be thinking a five or even seven-day international trip to somewhere exotic can be a cure. If anything, such a short trip would leave you jet lagged, drained due to the changes in diet, environment, and exercise, and at worst exposed to new illnesses and bacteria. Not to mention a little sore after hauling oversized luggage and backpacks.

There are many luxury travel enthusiasts who would disagree. I’m sure if you limit your flight to under eight hours and book a stay at a five-star resort without risk of coming into contact with anything foreign, you have a very strong chance of staying healthy and returning home with a refreshing glow. Nevertheless, the reason sickness tends to go hand-in-hand with traveling isn’t so much a result of the change in environment as it is a combination of factors:

You’re strong, healthy, and maintain a good diet. Maybe you’ve never had to test the limits of your immune system before, but heading to Beijing for a week will certainly pump you full of Mercury dust. This alone doesn’t affect you until your body eventually reacts differently to the Chinese food and a reduction in the amount of protein consumed. Coupled with your lack of sleep due to the jetlag and you’ve got the recipe for a nice travel illness.

Functional medicine. Looking at not just the symptoms, but the cause of those symptoms. Nowhere could this be more obvious than in someone displaced from everything he took for granted about his health. Traveler’s Diarrhea, also known as TD, may have simply been the result of a spoiled egg in that pisco sour, but would you still have gotten sick from it if you have had a full night’s sleep and a healthy dose of vitamins?

With that in mind, here are some common ways to get sick in different countries. Some are seasonal, some are unique to their respective countries, and some you may simply never encounter despite the warnings.

Yellow Dust

Yellow dust blowing into China, Korea, and even Japan has probably been going on for centuries, but with the pollution in China rising to increasingly more toxic levels, heavy metals and dangerous compounds have been carried right along with it. Seoul experienced pollution at three times the recommended dose in February, and running outside for less than an hour scorched my throat and gave me a terrible headache. China has its own share of problems when it comes to traveler’s health, but I suspect most of those headed to east Asia are ignorant about the threat of this dust from February to April.


I should point out that while the threat of malaria is very real for those traveling to developing countries, the risk is minuscule for anyone prepared; all you need is the proper medication before you leave and chances are high you won’t come down with anything. Aside from malaria, dengue and yellow fever and a host of other diseases are carried by mozzies across the globe. Malaria can be found from Haiti to Africa. Yellow fever in the Amazon jungle spanning several countries. Dengue in northern Thailand.

One thing I’d add about traveling to areas such as these is the lack of oversight; seldom will customs or immigration officials make sure you’re immunized or packing pills before letting you in. The responsibility falls to the traveler.


Traveler’s Diarrhea, as I mentioned, results from a combination of factors. I know plenty of people who experience it after a few days of eating street food in Thailand. I had a terrible experience getting dehydrated and sick in Arequipa off and on for weeks. Few escape this in South America‚Ķ even a Costa Rican friend succumbed in Lima, and Peruvians who have been living outside the country for some time find themselves spewing from both ends when they finally return.

Often, there isn’t one solution for TD. Drinking water and resting helps, of course, but there are many cases so extreme consulting a doctor and getting medication is necessary, like a course of antibiotics. Immodium doesn’t really solve the problem as much as delay it. Sometimes it’s the air. Usually the water and/or food.

Bloating, Gas, Fatigue

As a bit of culture shock, Japanese tourists often discover they’ve gained several kilograms after a visit to Italy. My Korean boss was crying out for kimchi and rice after a few days in the US. While this may simply be the result of wanting something familiar to hold (and eat) in a foreign land, we can’t escape the fact our bodies and metabolisms aren’t wired to change quickly. Can they be changed? Of course, but it takes time, and a lot of adjustment to weird things we thought we’d never eat.

For some people, this process results in decreased energy, gas, and bloating. For some, vomiting and TD may not be out of the question. Although the food may be clean, and the water pure, we can’t change the fact we’re used to a certain diet in our own countries. After living in Korea for a year and returning to San Francisco, I could barely stomach a few slices of salty, cheesy, delicious pizza with massive amounts of sauce, let alone a real cupcake. This country doesn’t use so much butter, sugar, and cream.

And while this may not be a serious illness, it still has the power to affect your trip and shake your impressions, e.g. you might be more susceptible to seeing Americans as fat and lazy if their food makes you feel heavy and sluggish.

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