Many college students will recall the fateful time after starting college when most of the freshman class gets a cold. It is brutal. You are alone, with new people, and not entirely sure how to take care of yourself more than simply functioning. But when you are sick, you have to sleep more, drink more, and eat consciously if you want to get better faster, which is rather hard stressing at school on a meal plan.
Getting sick abroad, however, is a whole different ballgame.
I boast the immune system of a toddler and am very good at getting sick, despite the hand sanitizer that is always on me and all the precautions I take. So I have been lucky enough to get sick abroad 3!! times, in the last 6 months.
I got sick pretty soon after arriving in Italy, which I partially chalk up to my body adjusting to a new environment. And then I got sick again. Naturally, it was right before a concert. Here, in Japan, I woke up surprised to find myself with a cold. It felt especially ironic considering it’s been mid-90s with humidity. But, surprise!
Now, after 3 goes, I consider myself an expert on self care while sick Abroad and would like to share my wisdom.
On my packing list, I strongly recommended bringing American medicine with you in case you got sick. Thank goodness I did, as I was immediately able to take a DayQuil and go to work with some of my symptoms managed. Another element I carry with me is Airborne, a tablet that dissolves in water to help prevent or speed up the cure of sickness. Sometimes at school I will take this daily. But when Abroad, I take these only when I am a. Traveling (extra susceptible to germs!) and b. Starting to worry I might be getting sick, even if it’s just a little allergy tickle. I’ll take one just to be safe. But when I am actually sick, I amp up to 2 Airbornes a day, one in the morning and one at night. You can feel free to skip this altogether, but it helps me feel like I am getting the vitamins I need. I know other people who rely less on over the counter medicine and prefer natural methods. For that, I’d suggest packing ginger and throat coat teas!
On top of Airborne, I go on the lookout for vitamin c. At school, it was easy to get an orange in the cafeteria or orange juice. In Italy, I was lucky to have fresh oranges on offer in my homestay and would increase my orange intake. Or I would swap it out for orange juice. Here, in Japan, fruit is rather expensive, but I am finding the juice to fill that void.
Next, I assess how sick I am. I was lucky enough to only contract colds each time, and never was contagious enough that other people got sick. But if you are feeling contagious, it is worth weighing the option of staying home, as you do not want to infect others. Contact your school or boss and let them know, and they will advise you. I know for my work and my school, a cold would not be sufficient to skip. It was not preventing me from working, so I went to both. However, my second cold in Italy was worse than my first and has been going for about a week and I had lost my voice. Knowing I had a concert in a couple days, I contacted the school nurse to see what they advised. Turns out it was a bit more severe than a cold, so they were able to give me medicine and advised I stay home the next day. This allowed me to heal faster for the concert. Had my host Mom not pushed me to go to the doctor, I would not have gotten medicine and probably would have had no voice for the performance. If you think you might have a more severe illness than a common cold, go to a doctor! Your program should have medical insurance that will help cover some or all of the costs. My medication was about $7 I believe. Going to a doctor will prove to the employer or teacher that you are not slacking off but indeed in need of some rest. This is also important because some cultures view sickness in different lights. In Italy, it would be completely unheard of for someone to NOT go to work if they had a cold, where as in the US that is pretty common. In Japan, cleanliness is paramount and if you are infectious you should not be around other people, or wear a mask.
Once you’ve assessed how you will progress with the illness, you unfortunately need to take a step back with your plans for the week. This is where things begin to get sad, because it is best if you rest, first and foremost. Sleep will help cure you. But that requires cancelling or saying no to activities in your week, which at the time feels really bad. When I got sick in Japan, it was the day of Pizza and Mario Kart and I was PUMPED for some pizza after so long and Mario Kart after years. But I had to decline because I needed to sleep. It ended up being a good call, as I got to sleep for about 11 hours. If you allow yourself more time to sleep at the beginning of your sickness and say no to things, the faster you can get better and get back out to having fun.
If you don’t already have a water bottle, buy one, even if it’s a single use water bottle that you refill. Drinking water when you are sick is important to keep you hydrated, allow your body to fight the disease, and keep you from getting sicker. This might be a bit of a problem when abroad, as in Europe there are no free bathrooms, or where I am in Japan you are going to have to use squatter toilets. But you cannot risk getting dehydrated, especially when sick. And if it is hot out, like it is here right now, you need even more water. The struggles in the mean time will be worth it in the end when you are feeling back to normal.
But most importantly, don’t let this sickness define you! Find a way to make the best out of your situation. I might’ve had to stay in instead of going out for pizza, but I got to babysit my neighbors dog instead! In Italy, I had to stay in from school, but it allowed me to practice more Italian with my host family and catch up on my work. If you are lucky enough to be abroad, this sickness too shall pass.
Of course, if you can go abroad and NOT get sick, all the better. Would highly recommend.