Tips on how to cope with sickness abroad

  • sick child
Published 8 months ago

Struggling with a chronic health condition or having found yourself coping with a sudden illness is tough as it is, and sometimes can be a rather lonesome path. Depending on one’s personality and type of sickness, a health condition can prevent us from living life as fully as we would like to. However, some of the best ways (other than our positive attitude) to get through sickness are to have a reliable support system and to trust the environment we are in. Thus, managing illness while living abroad can be a double challenge, especially when we are new to our host country or we are in a country where the healthcare is lacking.

Purchase international health insurance

international medical insurance

Regardless of the duration and reason for your move abroad (professional assignment, studies, retirement, or family), and no matter how healthy you feel at the time of moving — international health insurance should be on the top of your priority list when organising your expatriation project. Choosing the right health insurance plan for you and your family is probably one of the most responsible decisions you will be asked to make before your move abroad. Unlike regular health insurance, which may be offered by your employer, private health insurance, if chosen wisely, guarantees personalised and high-quality services, emergency care, and reasonable costs at times you may be vulnerable and easily misled.

Consult your doctor before the move

advice from doctor

Moving abroad is a demanding process as it is; moving abroad with a chronic medical condition is a whole different story, which commands additional measures and care. First and foremost, inform your doctor well in advance about your move and the specifics of the country you are moving to. Listen to your physician about how risky it is to live outside your country with your existing disease. For example, it is reported that sickle cell patients may suffer acute complications when exposed to extreme weather conditions. Do your research as some medications may not be available in your host country or may be in the market under a different name. Thus, pack medication and a copy of your prescription in case you need to purchase more abroad, as well as your medical records to avoid repeating exams and scans.

Take prevention seriously


We couldn’t agree more with the words of David Agus, an American physician and writer: “[...] an ounce of prevention is worth more than a million pounds of cure”. The overwhelming feeling you experience when moving to a new country can easily distract you from looking after yourself. You are concentrated on performing at your new role, helping your children adapt to their new school, supporting your partner, or handling homesickness; leaving your body and mind on autopilot, often ignoring the signs and symptoms they are sending you. We are not trying to say that you must visit the doctor at the drop of a hat. However, we strongly recommend that you act as soon as you feel that something isn’t right and you take it easy.  

Familiarise yourself with the local healthcare system

the local healthcare system

Access to healthcare is a human right, and it would be ideal if all countries had at least this aspect sorted. However, this isn’t always the case, and even some of the most affluent and developed countries aren’t setting an example for the rest. So, before settling in your new country, ensure that you have collected some reliable information about the healthcare system: Is it private, public, or a hybrid? How accessible and affordable it is? How is it funded? What is the mortality rate? Once in the country, get to know the healthcare providers of your area such as the closest hospital, and the process to get help such as the emergency numbers and the waiting time for an ambulance to reach you.  

Learn some emergency medical vocabulary

emergency medical vocabulary

Learning the language of your host country helps you in many aspects of your expat life — from understanding the culture and expanding your network to being a more attractive employee. However, you may not be ready to invest time and money to enrich your language skills. If this is the case, we recommend to at least throw in some medical vocabulary when learning the basic greetings and introductions. The knowledge of terms such as “severe pain”, “abdomen”, “numb”, “seizure”, “allergy”, etc. may come in handy in an emergency or in hospitals that don’t have interpreters.

Be open about your health

talk about your health

Talking about our health is a sensitive matter, which we often prefer not to bring up thinking that people aren’t interested in our suffering or that it makes us look vulnerable. However, if you are living abroad — and especially if you are solo — it’s very important to have a few people you can rely on for moral or practical (shopping, company, transport, etc.) support. The best way to get someone’s help when in need is to speak to them in advance and to make them feel trusted and appreciated. You don’t have to moan about your aches and pains on a daily basis, but you can express what you are going through and the risks associated with your condition.  

Don’t panic

informing family about your health

Last, if a health problem has arisen while living abroad, don’t rush to inform all your beloved ones back home before you have a clearer picture yourself from the specialists. Of course, family and close friends need to know and stand by you, even when far away. However, there’s little they can do if fear and worry have taken over. Also, when you decide to speak to them about what’s going on, think of the right time and avoid using medical jargon; be as clear as possible.