Posted by: sissillie | October 1, 2012

Getting Sick in Another Country

Nothing is worse than being sick.  Your body aches, you’re coughing all the time, and worst of all your nose is so stuffed up you can barely breath, and no matter how many times you blow, there is more up there.  There can be no possible way that a body produces so much snot to the point where you are convinced that you are going to die and all that will be left is a body still constantly oozing snot.

Now if you are in your home country, or where you speak the language, then you are fine.  You either go to a pharmacy or a doctor, get what you know works, go home, and either play videogames or watch mindless T.V. until you pass out and feel better in the morning.  This is not the case if you are not in your home country and more frightfully, don’t speak the language well enough to communicate what is wrong.  There are always options available to you when this occurs.  Please keep in mind that these examples are specific to South Korea, and it is important to check on any regulations that you may have wherever you are.

1. Grin and Bear It – What I think has to be the most popular traveler/expat solution.  And one, quite frankly, I try to do as often as I can as well.  Drink water, maybe get some orange juice, or vitamins if you can recognize any, and sleep it off.  I try to do this anyway because more often than not, it’s just exhaustion and nothing a few days of going to bed early won’t fix.

2. Travel with Medications – Now if you have any sort of prescription you regularly take, you should be doing this anyway.  However, I’m referring to the meds you take if you have a cold, or a headache.  Sometimes this is a good idea.  I suffer from headaches and arthritis in my ankle, so I take pain medication regularly and packed a big ol’ bottle of the stuff when I moved to South Korea because having been here before I know they only sell medications in boxes of 8 and I didn’t want to have to go to the pharmacy and ask the lady behind the counter for it every week.
But I did not bring any cold medication.  I know they have good healthcare here.  If I was moving someplace that didn’t have good healthcare then I would have been stocking up on the supplies.  But if you are new to a country and not sure how the medications will react with your system, I’d say it’s a good idea to pack a box or two of your favorite cold meds just in case something happens before you have the chance to find the foreign markets or find a doctor you trust.

3. Find a Foreign Market and Buy Your Brand of Cold Medicine – This applies to people who really don’t trust the local medication and want a brand they recognize.  To you I say, get over yourself.  Unless you live next door to a foreign market it’s going to be a pain to get there, especially when you are sick, and you are going to be spreading your germs around to people who don’t deserve it.  Not to mention any foreign medicine is going to be more expensive than anything local.

4.  Find a Pharmacy – Now hopefully a pharmacy is easy for you to find.  Generally pharmacies, doctors offices/hospitals, there is usually the red cross symbol or something like it.  For instance, in South Korea, there is the same cross symbol, but it is green. But if you don’t have insurance and just want the medications, then finding the pharmacy is the most important thing.  There are a few easy steps to finding a pharmacy.  The first and best approach is to learn the word or symbol for the country you’re going to before you leave.  While this may not always be possible, it’s also usually possible to be able to look it up once you get there or ask someone, either a co-worker, friend, or hotel/hostel staff.  Someone will know and be able to help you.  And perhaps you will be lucky enough to get a translator to go with you too!  And while I mentioned before that red cross symbol may not lead you to a pharmacy, it should lead you to a doctor’s office and at least in South Korea you are guaranteed to find at least one pharmacy in the area.  Once in there, you may be lucky enough to get someone who speaks English, but more likely than not you are going to have to dust off your charade skills for this converstation.  Luckily the signs for headache, sore throat, and coughing, are pretty universal.  Or you could do what I did last time and as you walk in get a coughing fit.  She figured out fast what I needed then.

5. Ask for Help – Especially if you are new to the country.  Nobody likes to see another person sick.  And if they do, run away and find someone else.  But 99% of people will help you if you ask for it.  Even if it’s only to direct you to the pharmacy or doctor’s office.  But if you are overseas working, your co-workers and boss should be more than willing to help you find a pharmacy, get medication, and even get you to a doctor, and if they can’t find one who speaks English, they will often go with you to translate.  If you are working in a school in South Korea and no one is willing to help you, start looking for employment elsewhere immediately, because that is a bad sign.  If you are staying in a hotel, the front desk will normally have advice and be able to write down the key words you may need to speak to a doctor or pharmacist.  And if you are in a hostel, someone would have been there long enough you can ask for advice from.  There is no reason for you to go through this completely alone.  Especially if you are new to the area, people are usually more than willing to help you out.  If only to get you well enough quickly so they don’t get sick too.

6. Go To the Doctor Already – If you have tried all of the above and you still are feeling miserable and coughing up both of your lungs, go to the doctor already.  There may be a bit more wrong than the average cold and you need something a little stronger.  This can be the scariest thing about going to another country though.  If you are lucky enough to be in a town where there is an English speaking doctor, or even traveling to the nearest place where there is an English speaking doctor.  Because even if you bring something that you really trust with you to help translate, something can still easily get lost and you are without control of what’s going to happen to your body.  Also, not all countries put labels on their prescriptions.  If I get something over the counter here in Korea it comes in a box with a bunch of writing that I can then ask my co-workers to translate the symptoms for me and to help make sure I got the right thing.  However, if I go to the doctor and they give me a prescription to fill, I get about 5 different pills separated out into when I should take each grouping in clear plastic bags with aboslutely no labels on them whatsoever.  Leaving me again at the mercy of others.  It can be scary to think that all you have is a cold that won’t go away, go see a doctor and you end up with about 6 different medications.  Just take a look what I got this past go around.

But it works.  And even though it is scary, you have to remember that these people do not want to hurt you.  They want to do what they can to make you better.  And in the end all you can do is trust your instincts and do what you feel is best for yourself.


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