Achoo! Being Sick Abroad

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

I woke up halfway through my flight to Japan with a sore throat. I thought no big deal, nothing a cup of coffee won’t fix. I called the stewardess and fell back asleep for a few more hours. When I woke up I was sweating on a freezing airplane. I hadn’t even landed and my trip was already over.

What happened next was an ongoing battle with jetlag, language barriers, and the worst head cold of my life. I waited for my body to heal itself. I am a person who gets sick once a year, maybe twice if I’m unlucky. After this week was over I would hit the ground running. Except the week didn’t end. One week turned into two—turned into three—into almost a month of aches and pains. My cold turned into the flu that eventually turned into a nasty sinus infection.


Feeling a little under the weather is normal when you first move. The combination of new foods, germs, and a change in environment leaves you especially vulnerable to getting sick—not to mention the stress of moving halfway around the world! Don’t worry, you’ll still have the time of your life, but if you DO find yourself a little sicker than you’d like, there are simple steps you can take to help get on the road to recovery.

Go to the doctor.

Seriously. If you’re an exchange student, chances are you have some kind of medical insurance. While my trip to the university clinic didn’t provide me with any clear results, it definitely reassured me that nothing major was wrong. Even if there is a language barrier, doctors know the warning signs of something more serious. Take advantage of your resources and learn about not only treatment but also preventative measures for those around you. Living in Japan, I’ve made my surgical mask a part of my daily fashion. (Yes, they come in different colors. Yes, I’m starting a trend.)

being sick abroad - doctor

You can still have fun.

It’s not the end of the world. It’s a hassle to tote around a family pack of tissues and remember to take the right painkillers and decongestants, but it’s definitely worth it. I spent the first two weeks lying in bed having a pity party for my sick self. It wasn’t fair, I wanted to go out with my friends, why did this happen to me? After a while, though, I started to realize that this wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I was going to feel the same whether I was in bed or out exploring my new home.

It’s important to take advantage of the healthy days you do have. Any time I feel remotely better is a chance to try something new while the feeling lasts.

being sick abroad - go outside


Take it easy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advising that you throw your immune system out and say “screw it.” There are some days where I need to go to bed early and wake up late. Being sick abroad is a huge responsibility that no one asks for. It’s important to think about how you’re feeling when you step out of the house to go exploring, but it’s more important to take into account how you’re going to feel after the day is over. FOMO is terrible, but so is ending up in the hospital!

When I first realized that my drippy nose and sore muscles weren’t going to go away I decided to throw caution to the wind and jump back into my regular schedule. Instead of “sweating it out” like I thought I would I got even worse. Adjusting your lifestyle to fit your new environment and health is crucial.

being sick abroad - slow down

Two months later and I’m still sneezing my way through central Japan. The days I feel sick still outnumber my good days 6:1, but taking a slower pace has done a lot for my mentality as well as my health. Learning to take time out of your day to rest on a bench or focus on local events has affected each and every one of my trips. Learn to stop and smell the roses (if you’re not too stuffy).

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Alivia Hancock is from Wisconsin and a third year student at Appalachian State University, where she is studying Global Studies, concentrating in globalization and sustainable development. Her second major is Japanese with a minor in applied linguistics. After graduating she hopes to enter a field in international or cross-cultural education. Currently pursuing her love for language at Okayama University in Japan, Alivia spends her free time practicing photography, creative writing, and adventurous eating. Follow her blog for stories about finding your second (or third) home. Check out her Instagram for extra stories on local cuisine, botanical gardens, and vlog updates.

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