Aside from jet lag and culture shock, shared by everyone, your health needs while abroad are the same as at home.
Ranging from the need for a healthy diet and exercise to monitoring your intake of alcohol (if you drink) to any unique health issues, you will face and have to deal with the everyday ups and downs of your body. Interestingly, it can be a real cultural adventure to need, find, and receive health care in a foreign setting.
STEP 10: Follow a Good Health Plan While Abroad
This checklist of things to do and keep in mind about your personal health care throughout your stay abroad can help.
FIND OUT HOW TO GET MEDICAL HELP—In your first week, figure out how you would find a doctor if you needed one. If you're in an ed-abroad program, ask your director if there is an assigned doctor or where to find a reliable one.
If traveling on your own and/or away from your ed-abroad program, some other choices are:
- Contact a U.S. consulate office for a list of doctors.
- The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT) has a list of English-speaking doctors all over the world (see the Resources section for contact information).
- The U.S. Department of State also provides lists of doctors and hospitals abroad, country by country, on its Web site (http://travel.state.govftraveljtips/emergencies/emergencies_n95·html).
- Check your insurance policy since some provide this information, too.
- You can call or visit a university hospital to be sure they take patients if necessary.
- If traveling alone in a developing area without access to other resources, try contacting a Western-style or other expensive hotel and ask for the doctor their guests are referred to.
TAKE CARE IN ADJUSTING TO A NEW DIET—Be prepared for food that can be quite different from what you are used to at home, even in familiar European countries. The diet may be more or less healthier than what you usually have, i.e. more fruits and vegetables or more fried foods, but it will likely be different. Eel soup, anyone? If you have special dietary needs, address them immediately with your program director or those you are living with. Ideally, you made these arrangements ahead of time.
Some areas/regions will present more dietary challenges. Pay attention to any precautions regarding food or water in the area in which you are traveling. If you are told not to eat food from street stands, not to drink tap water, or not to eat raw or unwashed foods, remember the old adage, “Peel it, boil it, cook it, or forget it.”
BE SURE TO EXERCISE—Exercise is important for both physical and mental health regardless of where you are. It's an excellent counterbalance to jet lag, dietary change, and the emotional ups and downs of culture shock-and it may be easier to do in your destination than it was at home. For instance, you'll probably walk more than in the United States because student housing is often farther from where classes are held and cars are less common in many regions of the world. Ask program directors about safe routes for walking to class, and follow their recommendations. Although many locations are very safe, don't assume that because you are in a different place you are automatically safe. Always ask!
AVOID ALCOHOL ABUSE—Alcohol abuse can plague students overseas, even some who didn't suffer from it at home. Some countries have more lenient drinking laws, and some cultures follow traditions different for many Americans about the position of alcohol in everyday social life. All of a sudden, you may find that the rules you knew at home are gone, replaced by new or unknown ones.
Don't let that situation get the better of you, and don't let yourself be pressured into drinking excessively, or at all if you don't want to. Not only can alcohol abuse damage the body and emotions considerably, but the legal implications can be more serious in other countries, even those with more lenient drinking ages. Driving-while-intoxicated laws, for example, may be far more severe abroad than they are in the United States. Just be mindful and cautious with alcohol.
AVOID SUBSTANCE ABUSE—While most countries, except those with religious prohibitions, tolerate social drinking, the use of mood- or mind-altering drugs is rarely allowed anywhere, under any circumstances. And the consequences for illegal substance use/ abuse can be devastating. It is damaging not only to the body, but the severe legal consequences can affect your visa status as a visiting student. Some countries slap down stiff penalties for drug use, and they don't lighten them just because you are a student and/or a U.S. citizen.
BE AWARE OF EMOTIONAL ISSUES—Don't expect that going abroad will help you "get away from it all"! If you have emotional issues at home, travel and living abroad won't cure them, especially when you consider that now you are dealing with culture shock, a different diet, and a new exercise pattern. In fact, travel abroad may make your emotional issues feel even more overwhelming. If you start feeling emotional distress, seek out counseling and available support systems where you are studying. Organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous exist worldwide, as do other groups designed to help you cope. Your program director can help you locate them.
STAY VIGILANT ABOUT STDS AND AIDS—By now you realize that cultural attitudes and behaviors can differ vastly from one region to another, and sexual attitudes and behavior are not exceptions. No matter where you are, though, unhealthy and unprotected sexual behavior carries serious health risks just the same as it does in the U.S.
STDs such as gonorrhea, herpes, chlamydia, and syphilis pose health threats in virtually every country of the world. Take the same precautions you would take at home to avoid exposure to all of these. HIV, the virus responsible for AIDS, can be transmitted through contaminated hypodermic needles/syringes and blood supplies as well as sexually. Follow the health advisories, especially in areas where AIDS is endemic.
STEP 11: Stay Safe to Stay Healthy
Personal safety and political safety are issues on everyone's mind. They are separate from health concerns, but they do intersect.
For example, if you are unfamiliar with local traffic patterns, the electricity supply, or public safety signs and symbols, you are putting yourself at risk.
Not knowing the local political traditions and how crowds behave or might be treated at public rallies can put you at risk. Before you join a rally or protest, no matter how important the cause or how passionately you believe in it, find out how protesters are treated by the local police and the public and if it is safe-both for your health and legal status in the country-for you to participate. The safest rule is not to join public protests outside the U.S.
While traveling, "assume nothing" is often the best advice to follow. Don't assume that behavior or traditions, such as those in dating, will be the same as those in your region of the U.S. And don't assume that you can read the signals accurately. Be careful not to put yourself at risk in these social situations. Don't assume in a new location that it is safe to be alone everywhere at night.
Don't ignore the health and safety issues that locals take seriously. Being a visitor or being an American citizen doesn't protect you from health or safety issues. You protect yourself. By making informed decisions, you'll be ensuring your well-being as well as contribute to the well-being of your friends.
If you suddenly have a serious emergency, contact the closest U.S. consular office. In a crisis, you can also contact the Overseas Citizens Services office. The number to call from overseas is 202.501.4444 (or 1.800.326.2996 TTY/TDD, from within the U.S. only).
To remind yourself, review this checklist of health-related safety measures periodically while abroad:
- Consider any unfamiliar conditions that might threaten your safety.
- Even if you aren't going to drive, become familiar with local driving patterns. Cars driving on the left instead of the right side of the road have a major impact on pedestrian traffic and decision making.
- Pay attention to bicycle regulations and customs.
- Prepare yourself if you are studying in an area prone to extreme weather phenomena such as typhoons, hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards-just like you would at home.
- Consider whether your ed-abroad home has special severe weather pollution issues you should watch for.
- Follow traffic rules and use seat belts whenever possible.
- Try to make sure that any vehicle you use is safe.
- Be aware of driving regulations, and make sure you can legally drive in the country.
- Study road sign symbols and other things that locals take for granted.
- Be cautious while swimming, especially in large bodies of water. Find out about tides and currents before you jump in.
- Be aware of the different electrical voltages used by appliances in other countries, and make sure the equipment you use is suited to the particular local voltage.
- Be sure refrigeration will be available if your medication requires it.
- Don't use poor electrical equipment with exposed wiring.
At times, the news can seem to be filled With Information about terrorism. You can check travel advisories at the Overseas Citizens Service (see U.S. Department of State information in the Travel Health Resources section at the end of this guide) Your ed-abroad adviser/program administrator can help you interpret travel advisory information and its significance All responsible ed-abroad programs will provide you with concrete information about any possible threats and what procedures to follow for dealing with them where you will study/work.
Continual exposure to media coverage about terrorism can add to feelings of anxiety. Keep in mind that you can be especially vulnerable to such concerns because you are in a new situation where you don’t know the social, political, and cultural cues as well as you do at home. Be informed about a variety of news and information resources available to you. If you have concerns about terrorism, check-in with your program director, ask questions, get facts, and follow the advice given.
Remember too, your family at home may be feeling similar anxiety. Together with them, use the resources available to get information and try to understand realistically what risk you may face and how you can prepare ahead. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Web site (see Travel Health Resources section at the end of this guide) has some helpful information about things to do and to keep on hand for a cushion of safety and health. Armed with information, you can make reasonable choices.
And, while there are no guarantees, it can help to remember that the odds of being in a terrorist attack are small, whether at home or abroad.
Office of International Programs
Farrington Building, Suite 116, Huntsville, TX 77340