What if I Get Sick in Europe? Advice to Travelers
No one wants to think of a major or even minor illness ruining their vacation plans. Still, an ounce of planning is worth a pound of cure. And the following bits of advice will prove invaluable if you find yourself feeling a bit under the weather while on vacation in Europe.
THE MOST COMMON COMPLAINT: TRAVELER'S DIARHEA
The mere act of traveling on an airplane, for some, can cause this annoying problem - and this can be the unfortunate case whether traveling two hours by plane to another state or traveling seven hours to some exotic, overseas destination. Doctors aren't exactly certain what causes this although some theorize that the stress of planning a trip, the hustle and bustle of arriving at the airport on time, and the change of food and water all play key factors. Having said that, most places in Europe - particularly Northern Europe have water that is as "safe" if not "safer" than the water enjoyed in most of the United States. But water quality does vary from country to country - water in Scandinavia is considered particularly pure compared to that found in Italy. Neither water quality is "bad" per se, but some are rated better than others. So water, overall, should not be a major concern. As you will see, most Europeans buy bottled water even though their tap water is in most cases perfectly safe. On an interesting side note, there seems to be this "urban legend" throughout Western Europe that "softened" water is somehow not fit to drink. I have drunk tens of gallons of water from European faucets and never tasted, or more importantly, never felt the difference. A word of warning however - water in Eastern Europe does have its "problems." I recommend not taking the risk - stick with bottled water or bottled soft drinks like Coca-Cola - it's everywhere and it tastes just about the same no matter where you go.
Now here, you may have a problem - at least at first. Americans are used to eating food that is chocked-full of preservatives. European food purity laws, particularly in France, heavily regulate what you can put in food as a food additive or preservative. Consequently the food is almost "too pure," if that is indeed possible, and can provide a minor shock to your system. European meats and cheeses can be compared to the meats and cheeses found in the U.S. before the advent of large factory farms and mass-production. Personally, I find the food, with a few exceptions, to be as good if not superior to our own.
PREVENTATIVE MEASURES - A few weeks before leaving, try to work yogurt into your diet. It's theorized that yogurt will add beneficial bacteria to your digestive system allowing you to "adjust" more quickly to the change of cuisine. And it wouldn't hurt taking some over-the-counter anti-diarheal medicine with you such as Pepto Bismol or Immodium AD . Paris from a bathroom stall is no way to spend a vacation.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE FEELING A LITTLE UNDER THE WEATHER:
Believe it or not, you may want to think about visiting your local pharmacy. Pharmacies in Europe are typically marked with a "green cross" above the door - many times in bright, flashing neon. And there are all-night pharmacies - even in smaller towns. European pharmacists have additional training that their American counter-parts do not have. These pharmacists often act like nurse practitioners here in the States - they diagnose and treat minor illnesses and this is at no additional charge. European pharmacies are well-stocked with the latest over-the-counter medication. On an interesting note, some "prescription-only" drugs in the United States are available over-the-counter in Europe, but on the other hand, some over-the-counter medications in the U.S., are only available via a doctor's prescription. And again, drug availability varies from country to country, but is in most cases much less expensive that medications sold in the U.S. The sure bet is to pack some very basic cold medications and pain relievers with you. If the pharmacist thinks you should see a general practitioner, they will recommend you visit a local health clinic.
SO YOU ARE SICK AND NEED TO SEE A DOCTOR:
Western Europe enjoys, almost without exception, universal health care. Health care coverage is provided to all its citizens and is largely paid for via income taxes. And it is very good health care which I have experienced first-hand. Europeans view health care as a "human right," and not so much as a privilege. Consequently, health care in Europe is much less "business-driven" than it is the U.S. It is, first and foremost, about servicing the patient's needs and not so much about cost. And again, this is just a cultural difference. Americans have a cultural expectation that food and gasoline will always be "affordable," and while affordable food is certainly a "universal desire," the concept of affordable gasoline, as it is not truly a life and death issue, is a bit foreign to most Europeans. They have a very difficult time wrapping their heads around the American argument that health care is a privilege and not a right in other words. By American standards, doctors' offices and hospitals are not pretty - you won't find $30 a roll designer wallpaper on the walls in the waiting rooms, but you will find state-of-the-art medical care at little or no cost.
Your hotel or even your bed and breakfast will have an on-call doctor on speed dial. And this doctor will make house calls directly to your hotel room if you are too sick to leave your room. Depending on the country, this house call will cost you somewhere between $20 US and $70 US. And the amount of this fee in large part depends on whether you are in a wealthier European country and how much the hotel takes as a "kick-back." In addition, most European cities have what amount to "public clinics." These clinics specialize in treating common ailments and are staffed by doctors and nurses that are capable of taking care of most non-emergency medical problems. Many of these clinics charge nothing - even to foreign tourists. And if they do charge, the fees are comparable to those paid for a house call. If you require a prescription, the doctor will write you one and direct you to the nearest pharmacy.
YOU ARE REALLY SICK AND NEED TO GO TO A HOSPITAL:
By all means, notify someone - anyone! They will call an ambulance and take you to the hospital. In France, ambulances are commonly staffed with actual physicians so your professional care starts immediately. European hospitals are comparable to their American counterparts in every way except cost. You will find that there are many more general practitioners than specialists in Europe. And the whole idea is that to service the needs of the most people, a general practitioner is more valuable than a room-full of $800,000 per year anesthesiologists. And that logic is hard to argue with when you really think about it. So while your major medical treatment certainly won't be "free," it will certainly be much less by factors in the double or even triple digits, than the equivalent care in the U.S.
American Medicare, for retired Americans, is not honored in Europe. Your European service providers will provide you with copies of your medical expenditures; you may be able to have these out-of-pocket expenses reimbursed by your own health insurance plan back home. And I recommend checking into traveler's health insurance - particularly if you aren't in the best of health. It is very affordable and well worth the extra peace of mind it will afford you.
In summary, don't panic if you get sick in Europe. You will not be left out in the cold by your European hosts and you certainly won't go broke paying for medical treatment.
SEE MORE EUROPEAN TRAVEL AND CULTURE ARTICLES BY THIS AUTHOR AT THE FOLLOWING LINKS: