Travel is fun but it is also strenuous for your body, especially when you’re constantly on the go and dealing with changing climates and timezones. Falling sick during or after your travels is usually a timely reminder to slow down a little. Here’s a story about that time I lost my voice in Poland and what a literal pain in the neck that was for travelling and communicating on the road.
A version of this post was first published on Travel Made Different by Income (no longer available) and republished here with permission and amendments.
What happened in Poland
I’ve encountered various sort of ailments during my travels though they have mostly been fairly minor – flu, headaches, diarrhoea, nausea, sore sinuses, sore throats and coughs… I usually self medicate with my own stash of medicine or picked up something from the local pharmacy.
But this particular time in Krakow, Poland was the first time in my life I developed some weird throat infection that caused me to completely lose my voice and ability to talk, and it made travelling a bit more challenging.
It all happened within the span of a day – I had arrived in Krakow, Poland the night before and was still having normal conversations in the morning with people that I met on a group walking tour. As the hours went by, so did my voice – I found myself having to clear my throat and getting steadily hoarser as the day went on, and by nightfall, there was barely any sound coming of my mouth.
It was like my voice was suddenly locked away – my throat was so congested that nothing but a breathy sigh stuttered painfully passed my lips, even when I attempted screaming. My throat ached so much. It was a bit shocking how quickly I was laid low by this illness as I tried fruitlessly to get some sleep that night, a task surprising difficult for the discomfort in my throat.
Luckily I had a travel insurance plan that covered doctor’s visits overseas, and my hostel receptionist managed to find me a nearby doctor that spoke English. My doctor was amused at my breathy attempts to explain what was obviously wrong and diagnosed me with a throat infection, prescribed me some medication and a reminder to rest my throat.
Rest and Recovery
The next few days in Poland were spent in relative silence, communicating mostly through apologetic shrugs or very hoarse whisper-shouts, which is hard when you are sightseeing and trying to make friends in a social hostel setting. Keeping too quiet can make you appear aloof and unfriendly, but trying to talk to people was painful for my throat and sometimes people looked a bit worried about catching what I had.
Many people I know don’t want to travel solo because they are afraid of having to deal with illness all alone and without any support. While it would have been nice to have someone speak on my behalf, I was actually . happy that I wasn’t slowing anybody down or feeling bad about inconveniencing anyone too much by being sick.
You would think not being able to speak with locals shouldn’t matter since I can’t speak Polish anyway, but it actually makes quite a bit of difference in communicating – being able to manage basic greetings and making agreeable sounds at appropriate junctures. You do seem like a bit of a weirdo if you don’t even make a sound even if you don’t speak the language.
Combine that with the physical discomfort of a phlegm-clogged and sore throat, I decided to indulge in more me-time for that particular part of the trip until my voice returned, and spent my time in Krakow roaming around the streets and sights on my own. Ordering food or asking for directions were made mostly with a sheepish smile and pointing, or typing into the handy Google Translate app. Just a few hoarse attempts at speaking usually made it clear why I was being so quiet.
And thankfully my throat did get better after some rest and medicine over the next 2 weeks, and I was able to join in conversations again and revert to my usual friendly self after a few days. Falling sick while travelling is never a fun thing but it’s a timely reminder that you need to take care of yourself whether you are at home or on the road.
How not to fall sick while travelling
Here are some tips I have learnt from my past travelling experience for staying healthy on the road. Sometimes falling sick or catching a bug is unavoidable, but there is quite a lot you can do to minimise the chances of that happening
Get your necessary vaccinations pre-trip
I recommend getting a flu shot at least 2 weeks before your trip. Flu might seem like a minor thing but if you can prevent it, why not? This vaccination lasts for about a year.
Other shots I got pre-career break – Hep A/B, tetanus, yellow fever (because I was considering visiting the Amazon), typhoid. I was travelling quite extensively so I headed down to the Traveller’s Health and Vaccination Clinic in Tan Tock Seng Hospital for a consultation, and these jabs were what they recommended based on the regions I was going to visit, but you honestly don’t have to do all of them if you don’t feel they are necessary.
Paying extra attention to hygiene
Simple habits like regularly washing your hands, using hand sanitizer or wearing a mask can go a long way in preventing yourself from falling sick. Being conscious of your environment especially when it comes to your food and knowing your own body’s limitations is also key.
I carry a simple first aid kit with basic medication like Paracetemol (for headaches), antihistamines (sinus and minor colds), charcoal pills (diarrhoea), but all this medication and more is usually available in pharmacies in most major cities and quite easy to get. It might even be cheaper or easier to get some of this medication depending on where you are.
Sometimes we get caught up in the excitement of travel and forgot to ensure simple things like drinking sufficient of water and getting enough rest because of changing time zones. Travel can be hard on the body, and while you want to maximise your holiday, make sure not to do it at the expense of your own health.
It wouldn’t be the only time I would lose my voice while travelling – it happened again some months later when I was travelling in Peru. I could feel the onset of the bug coming on, that scratchy feeling growing in my throat and the alarming amount of phlegm I was hacking up. I lost my voice for a couple of days again but I was way more prepared than I was in Krakow so it was more silent sighing and less worrying.
Always Have Travel Insurance
I always advocate for having travel insurance if you can afford it, and this was another time I was thankful to have travel insurance. I could claim the cost of my doctor’s visit and medicine when I got back home to Singapore. Did you know that if you do fall sick directly after a trip or because of a trip, you may be able to claim your medical costs from your travel insurance as well? It depends on your policy of course, but it’s always useful to know.
What are your travel sickness stories? Funny ones, sad ones, gross ones – share them all with me! I know I definitely had extra sympathy for my friend Annemarie from Travel On The Brain when something similar happened to her when we met in Romania – check out her story about her experience.