Common Health Concerns for Travellers and How to Handle Them

This article talks about how to stay healthy while traveling. It introduces common health problems for backpackers and gives advice on how to get healthcare while abroad. It covers what first aid supplies should you carry while backpacking, what supplies can you get at pharmacies in developing countries, and what to do if you need the doctor or hospital while traveling through unfamiliar parts of the world. 

What are the common health problems backpackers encounter?
Photo by Alexandra Gorn, Unsplash.

The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition

Reality Check: S#;+ Happens

Humans are the self proclaimed top of the food chain. However, they are frequently prey to some of the smallest organisms on the planet, such as various bacteria and viruses. Humans naturally possess an internal self-defense system, called an immune system, which is capable of fighting off most of those organisms, but not all. Additionally, humans are prone to injuring their fragile physical form, especially when outside of the natural habitat. 

If you decide to skip travelling and stay home, eventually you are going to get sick or hurt. If you go abroad and your trip is long enough, eventually you are going to get sick or hurt.

The point is: it happens. To everyone, everywhere. That’s why the word “accident” exists. Don’t be scared, the majority of backpackers encounter Delhi Belly, aka Montezuma’s Revenge, and that’s all. There is not a cluster of evil germs waiting to pounce on you the minute they open the arrival gate. You are no more at risk of tripping and breaking your back than you are at home. Most problems you encounter can be sorted out by a trip to the local pharmacy.

That said, there are some things to consider and ways to prepare. Most of them are common sense.

What to carry in a First Aid kit 

In the Ultimate Packing Guide, there are details on exactly what to put in your first aid kit. To summarize what it says there, you should bring a small amount of those things you are most likely to use: 

  • Bandaids (aka plasters)
  • Triple Antibiotic Ointment, like Neosporin 
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Antibacterial wipes

Minor cuts and scrapes are going to happen. If you have enough to handle those, you can get whatever else you need as you travel. 

Your first aid kit is the “first” line of defense, not the only.

Where can you get healthcare supplies while travelling?

Supermarkets in developing nations are not like what you find in ultra-developed first world countries: they are not mega stores that carry every possible product. They can be, but usually only in the largest cities- so check with the hostel staff before you go questing for supplies. Most of them are what Westerners would call mini-marts, that sell produce and a few other items, like kitchen supplies, dishes, and laundry soap. If you went to the “supermarket” and they didn’t have what you were looking for, check the pharmacy. Pharmacies carry things you put on or in your body. Supermarkets sell food.


Pharmacies in developing countries play a unique role: they often serve as the primary service providers in areas that may not have established health care.  

What are pharmacies like in developing nations?

Pharmacies in most developing nations are mini versions of what you get in fully developed nations. Usually they are run by individuals, not chain stores. The staff often has medical training and most pharmacies will either issue you a “prescription” on the spot and sell you whatever you ask for. These small pharmacies stock things like medications, vitamins, baby diapers, sunscreen, aloe vera, shampoo, conditioner, and femenine hygiene products.

Pharmacies are your first line of defense while travelling. The staff either has real medical training or has first hand knowledge of the issues in the area. A (free) conversation with them is usually enough to diagnose and treat most problems backpackers face. Pharmacies are very, very common and easy to find. 

Can I get antibiotics while traveling?

It is almost too easy to get your hands on Penicillin/Amoxicillin and other medications in developing countries. Just because a pharmacist offers you something does not mean you need to take it. Consider your options and consult Dr Google before taking any medications. If you do start a course of medication, follow the instructions- do not stop as soon as you start to feel better or you could have a relapse (which is usually worse and harder to treat than the initial case).

Do not take anything if you don’t know what it is and don’t trust that it is from a reliable source. 

Basic first aid is a packing essential.
Make sure you carry a few basic first aid supplies, so you can handle and bumps and bruises like this poor little guy has.

What are the most common health issues for Backpackers?

Some health issues are more likely than others, below is a list of the most common and some advice on what to do if you experience them.

Common Colds and The Flu

Being sick on vacation sucks; It’s one of the unique torments of this world. And it’s going to happen. Cold medications are always available at the local pharmacy. But they will be whatever the local brand is. It’s rare to come across a name brand you recognize. If you strongly prefer your favorite flavor of NyQuill, bring a small supply from home. Otherwise, you can always find something. 

What to do if you get a cold or flu while traveling

Take it easy, rest, hydrate, eat as healthily as you can. Take all the same steps for a cold that you would at home, even if it means rescheduling an exciting activity. 

Keep track of your symptoms, if they don’t clear up after a few days, visit the local health care provider.

Food Poisoning 

Everyone has experienced the discomfort of food poisoning. There are a number of causes with varying degrees of severity. My most horrific case of food poisoning was in the US. 

What to do if you get food poisoning while traveling

Usually, it passes on its own with a little time and a lot of hydration. If your symptoms become severe, every pharmacy carries treatment options, which are always affordably priced. If you have a delicate stomach, visit a pharmacy to stock up on a solution before you actually get sick.

How to reduce the risk of food poisoning

Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to prevent food poisoning, it’s just rotten luck. But you can avoid contracting it by means other than the food itself:

  • Use hand sanitizer before every meal. When that’s not an option, at least wash and dry them. 
  • Don’t get ice in your drinks. Ice contaminates your beverage as it melts. It is usually made with tap water, which could contain organisms to make you sick. Some restaurants and hotels that cater to tourists may have ice made from filtered water, but ask first. 
  • Don’t put anything in your mouth. Ya, this one sounds super obvious- but think about how many times you hold a pen between your teeth to grab something else, or how often you put a finger in there…don’t do it while travelling. 
  • Wipe down your cutlery. Make sure any cutlery you use is clean and dry. 
  • Drink only sanitized water. We’ve all heard the story of someone getting sick from brushing their teeth with tap water. Make sure you have access to clean water. Read Water Filters or Purification Tablets for options on how to prepare water for yourself. 
  • Eat fresh food. Your risk of food poisoning goes down when it hasn’t been sitting around for hours. Try to eat at the same time as the locals because you know the kitchen is operating and you’re not just getting the leftovers. It’s even better if you can watch the food being prepared: street food can sometimes be your best option. The Guide to Street Food is a great resource. 
  • Avoid fruit without a peel. This may be the hardest one. But if you can’t peel it, you probably shouldn’t risk eating it. Things like oranges, grapefruits, bananas, and watermelons are perfect.  


Especially when visiting a different climate, a backpacker may develop a variety of rashes. In most cases, your skin is either too dry or too wet. Most rashes are easily treated with moisturizing cream (for skin too dry) or a sprinkling of baby powder (for skin too wet) in the affected area. In other cases, a rash could be an allergic reaction to a food or chemical, like those in laundry detergent. If a rash is unusual in terms of its persistence or condition, it can indicate a different problem. 

What to do if you get a rash while traveling?

Most rashes heal best with access to air, so try to keep the area dry and uncovered. Avoid any abrasive activity in the affected area, such as from your pack straps. With any rash, it’s a good idea to start with a visit to the pharmacy and seek more serious attention at a hospital if needed. 

While exploring Tanzania, a rash that I’d been ignoring for weeks started to really bother me. I’d been pretending the discomfort of my skin, the aches and pains, and the constant nausea was due to other factors, like long bus rides. I was finally convinced to visit a pharmacy and get treatment for Bilharzia, a common parasite in East Africa, especially around Lake Victoria and the White Nile- where I had just been. The first pharmacy was low on supply so I had to visit a second in order to purchase the full dose, which was only a few pills. Neither location asked more than a few questions before making their diagnosis and selling me the medication. It cost less than $6, which was the ‘muzungu price’. My symptoms completely cleared up within 36 hours and the rash fully healed a few days later. Never to be seen again.


Now that’s a fun word. It’s like a tiny friend you always have with you. But one that trashes your house and leaves you with the mess. Parasites can be found in water, soil, food, and even on the surfaces of objects. 

What to do if you get a parasite while traveling?

If you suspect you have a parasite, get to a doctor as soon as possible. Most are easily treated with modern medication and cause no lasting harm if caught early.

How to reduce the risk of getting a parasite

In many places, backpackers do not have to seriously worry about contracting a parasite. But it is something to be aware of. The risk goes up in many developing nations. Cryptosporidium and Giardia are some of the most common that backpackers encounter. 

  • Wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitizer.
  • Limit your contact with infected sources. Most locals already know if a certain water source is infected and are very willing to tell you so: heed their warnings. 
  • Drink sanitized water.
  • Avoid animal feces. Not that you wouldn’t normally, but avoid walking barefoot anywhere there is a risk- it tracks unwanted organisms back to your dorm. 

How to check for parasites and other health risks in an area?

Check your country’s Travel Bureau. The US Bureau of Consular Affairs is a great resource for country info, visa requirements, and health and safety risks by country.

How to check your consular for travel warnings.
Check your travel consular's website for country-specific warnings.


Ask yourself, do you already face risks in your daily life or hobbies? Do you ski, snowboard, windsurf, play soccer or basketball? Or do you cross a particularly tricky intersection or bit of highway on your way to work? Have you ever camped in the woods or gone for a hike? Or have you ever been out late in a city? There is exposure to harm in everything you do. You already have valuable risk avoidance skills to handle yourself abroad. Give yourself the credit you deserve for surviving the gauntlet that is life. 

Backpackers are not magically at a higher risk of injury simply because they are in an unfamiliar land. If you are exploring a city, visiting museums, and trying local cuisine, you face pretty much the same risks that you usually do at home. It’s the times when backpackers are off doing those adventure-type things, like cliff jumping, mountain climbing, and volcano surfing that a backpacker may hurt themselves.

Most backpackers deal with minor injuries eventually. If you can’t handle an injury with your own first aid kit, whatever supplies you need can be picked up at the pharmacy. Gauze, disinfectant, bandages, burn cream, and the like are easily found everywhere in the world.

Hopefully, you will not seriously hurt yourself. As mentioned earlier, it’s important to exercise basic caution. But accidents happen. Most developing nations have poor, or entirely lack, emergency response services. In those cases, the locals band together to help whoever is in need. Usually, this means your hostel staff. They do so because a- they are generous and caring, and b- they don’t want an international incident. When bad things happen, you can find help. It’s human nature. 

In a lot of cases, participating in an adventure-type thing requires going through a tour operator. They will always have first aid supplies and make sure you get whatever help you need if you are injured. 

While surfing in El Salvador, I was stung by a stingray. RIP Steve Erwin. To this day, it was the most singularly painful experience of my life. I dragged myself and my board onto the beach and was spotted by another surfer, a fellow hostel guest named Rori. He scooped me up like he was David Hasselhoff (something I didn’t appreciate until later) and ran me up to our hostel. The staff all rallied to my aid and before I knew it, they had a local cure set up: banana leaves in hot water. But I was having a bad reaction to the venom. I started convulsing from the pain of it so they decided to take me to the local hospital. Someone showed up with a pickup truck. I was still covered in sand and salt water but they loaded me in without hesitation, a few staff jumped in the back, and we rushed to the doctor. The local clinic was clean but basic. I remember being struck by the fact that there was no glass in the windows. I got a shot in each ass cheek: a steroid and an antibiotic. The two nurses on duty were lovely and sweet people. In El Salvador, healthcare is free, but they often lack funding. I left $5, which was all I had in my swim shorts, and was guided back to the hostel. My ankle was tender for a few days but healed fine.


When not properly taken care of, a tiny cut can turn into a big problem. Infections can get out of control when ignored, but are easy to prevent. 

What to do if you get an infection while traveling?

  • Keep any wound as clean as possible, even if they seem minor. Wash and dry them regularly. 
  • Protect open wounds at least until a scab forms. 
  • Use antibacterial ointment. 
  • Avoid swimming in fresh water until after your wound is healed. 

Blisters and cuts on your feet are especially important to take care of because they are close to the ground.

After scuba diving in The Philippines, I had a tiny blister on my heel. It started off a little red, but slowly got worse and worse because I was ignoring it. It didn’t happen overnight, but it seemed like it, because all of a sudden, my entire foot was dark purple, swollen, and I could barely stand on it. Some local children helped me hobble me to a shop that sold antibiotics. Concerned that I had sepsis, I bought and took a round of amoxicillin (it was only the second time in 15 years of travel I’d needed it). It took about a week, but my foot slowly healed, returned to its natural size and color, and would bear my weight again. I learned not to ignore the small problems in case they turn into big ones.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Because you are away from home, having amazing adventures, and meeting awesome people, you may start to think you are invincible. But you’re not. The same risks exist. You can’t see them, they don’t broadcast their presence ahead of time, but they can haunt you for life after only one mistake. This isn’t new information, but consider yourself informed- again. Whatever you decide to do, be safe. If you are sexually active, carry protection before you need it. Not every pharmacy sells supplies of this nature but options can usually be found in larger cities. 

What to do if you get a STD while traveling?

If you suspect you have a STD, get a professional diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible. STDs are serious, so do not ignore anything that may indicate you have contracted one. Abstain from additional sexual contact until you have consulted with a doctor.

Hospital and doctor visits: How to handle them

Most healthcare professionals are sincerely concerned with the welfare of others. But the fact is that healthcare standards are not the same everywhere in the world. 

  • Make sure the examining area is clean and sanitary. If it is not, ask to go to another area, or leave and find another option. 
  • Demand the examining doctor wear gloves. Some hospitals charge for this service, but it’s pennies and worth it. 
  • Ask that all equipment be sanitized in front of you. Some nurses/doctors will claim it was sanitized in another area, but you won’t know for sure unless you see it yourself. Some hospitals will charge for this additional use of supplies, but again, it’s worth it. 
  • Ask questions. Make sure you know EXACTLY what is going on. If you are too ill to do so, bring someone from your hostel to help. 
  • Stand up for yourself. If anything does not look right (sanitary, safe, or legitimate) express that you are not comfortable with it. You can always leave.

Getting proper care may come at a higher cost to dealing with it yourself or opting for the cheapest option, but your health is the most valuable thing you possess. Treat it as such and don’t’ quibble about a little expense to get decent care. 

In Myanmar, I woke up feeling ill and noticed that blood was leaking from one ear. I asked around and found my way to the “nicest” hospital in the area. In the examination room, a thin curtain separated me from a dying woman surrounded by her crying family. The staff tried to get me to sit on a blanket that I could smell from across the room and looked covered in mucus and blood. I told them to remove it and wipe down the plastic seat below or I would be happy to stand. The receiving doctor attempted to examine my ear with a pen (like the ones you write with) that he had removed from his shirt pocket. I had to slap his hand away because he spoke little English. Finally, they fetched a nurse that asked if I would like to see a specialist. 

The nurse led me through a hallway that didn’t have a wall on one side; dirty water poured over the open ceiling to make brown puddles along the floor. After a short wait in another reception area, I was brought to the office of an older doctor, an ear specialist. Luckily, this doctor spoke fluent English. I discussed my problems and he prepared to examine me. He withdrew from a cubby a rust covered box containing a variety of instruments that you would imagine in various horror movies. He too, tried to insert one into my ear. Once again, I demanded he clean it first. He looked affronted, but I did not care. He took out a candle, lit it, and held the instrument in the flame to sanitize it. The rest of the appointment was straightforward: I had the flu, a fever, and a ruptured blood vessel in my ear. Nothing life threatening. 

The total bill was $10, which I had the option to pay in installments, if needed. Worth it for the peace of mind.

What every backpacker needs to know about healthcare abroad

Health problems are one of the major challenges of travelling abroad. It’s scary to consider what could go wrong while you are far away from your normal support network. There are risks, but almost all of them are manageable.

Backpackers are never without resources: there are doctors and pharmacies all over the world. And locals are always willing to help. Travel Insurance is available to those who want full coverage.

Backpacking the world, alone, is one of the most rewarding things a person can do. Be smart, have some common sense, and you will have a great time.


The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition

Still Curious? Keep Reading

To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries. 

― Aldous Huxley

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