Traveler's First-Aid Kit
By Rick Steves
You can buy virtually anything you need in Europe. (You might not find "Sudafed," but you can get the European generic equivalent, pseudoephedrine.) But if you're accustomed to a very specific, name-brand medication, it's easier to bring it from home.
It's also handy to bring along the following:
- soap or alcohol preps (antiseptic Handi-Wipes or Purell-type hand sanitizer)
- antibiotic cream (in Europe, you may need a prescription to buy skin ointments with antibiotics)
- moleskin (to cover blisters)
- non-aspirin pain reliever (your US brand of preference: Advil, Tylenol, etc.)
- medication for colds and diarrhea
- prescriptions and medications (in labeled, original containers)
Particularly if you'll be hiking in isolated areas, bring a first-aid booklet, Ace bandage, space blanket, tape and bandages.
For eye care: Those with corrected vision should carry the lens prescription as well as extra glasses in a solid protective case. Contact lenses are used all over Europe, and the required solutions for their care are easy to find.
Basic First Aid
Headaches and Other Aches: Tylenol (or any other over-the-counter pain reliever) soothes headaches, sore feet, sprains, bruises, Italian traffic, hangovers, and many other minor problems. If you're buying it overseas, Europeans may be more familiar with the term "paracetamol" (pare-ah-SEET-ah-mall).
Swelling: Often accompanying a physical injury, swelling is painful and delays healing. Ice and elevate any sprain periodically for 48 hours. A package of frozen veggies works as a cheap ice pack. If your foot or leg is swollen, buy or borrow a bucket and soak the affected area in cold water, or sit on the edge of a cool swimming pool. Take an anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Use an Ace bandage to immobilize, reduce swelling, and provide support. It is not helpful to "work out" a sprain — instead, cut back on activities that could aggravate the injury.
Fever: A high fever merits medical attention. A normal temperature of 98.6° Fahrenheit equals 37° Celsius. If your thermometer reads 40°C, you're boiling at 104°F.
Colds: It's tempting to go, go, go while you're in Europe — but if you push yourself to the point of getting sick, you've accomplished nothing. Keep yourself healthy and hygienic. If you're feeling run-down, check into a good hotel, sleep well, and force fluids. (My trick during the hectic scramble of TV production is to suck on vitamin C with zinc tablets.) Stock each place you stay with boxes of juice upon arrival. Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) and other cold capsules are usually available, but may not come in as many varieties.
Abrasions: Clean abrasions thoroughly with soap to prevent or control infection. Bandages help keep wounds clean but are not a substitute for cleaning. A piece of clean cloth can be sterilized by boiling for 10 minutes or by scorching with a match.
Blisters: Moleskin, bandages, tape, or two pairs of socks can prevent or retard problems with your feet. Cover any irritated area before it blisters. Many walkers swear by Body Glide, a solid anti-chafing stick sold in running shops and sporting-goods stores. For many, Band-Aid's Friction Block stick is a lifesaver for preventing blisters in spots where your shoe rubs against your foot.
Motion Sickness: To be effective, medication for motion sickness (Dramamine or Marezine) should be taken one hour before you think you'll need it. These medications can also serve as a mild sleep aid. Bonine also treats motion sickness but causes less drowsiness.
Diarrhea: Get used to the fact that you might have diarrhea for a day. (Practice that thought in front of the mirror tonight.) If you get the runs, take it in stride. It's simply not worth taking eight Pepto-Bismol tablets a day or brushing your teeth in Coca-Cola all summer long to avoid a day of the trots. I take my health seriously, and, for me, traveling in India or Mexico is a major health concern. But I find Europe no more threatening to my stomach than the US.
I've routinely taken groups of 24 Americans through Turkey for two weeks. With adequate discretion, we eat everything in sight. At the end of the trip, my loose-stool survey typically shows that five or six travelers coped with a day of the Big D and one person was stuck with an extended weeklong bout.
To help avoid getting diarrhea, eat yogurt, which has enzymes that can ease your system into the country's cuisine.
If you get diarrhea, it will run its course. Revise your diet, don't panic, and take it easy for 24 hours. Make your diet as bland and boring as possible for a day or so (bread, rice, boiled potatoes, clear soup, toast without butter, weak tea). Keep telling yourself that tomorrow you'll feel much better. You will.
If loose stools persist, drink lots of water to replenish lost liquids and minerals. Bananas are effective in replacing potassium, which is lost during a bout with diarrhea.
Don't take antidiarrheal medications if you have blood in your stools or a fever greater than 101°F (38°C) — you need a doctor's exam and antibiotics. A child (especially an infant) who suffers a prolonged case of diarrhea also needs prompt medical attention.
I visited the Red Cross in Athens after a miserable three-week tour of the toilets of Syria, Jordan, and Israel. My intestinal commotion was finally stilled by a recommended strict diet of boiled rice and plain tea. As a matter of fact, after five days on that dull diet, I was constipated.
Constipation: With all the bread you'll be eating, constipation, the other side of the intestinal pendulum, is (according to my surveys) as prevalent as diarrhea. Get exercise, eat lots of roughage (raw fruits, leafy vegetables, prunes, or bran tablets from home), and everything will come out all right in the end.
Medical Care in Europe
If you're worried about getting sick while traveling, rest assured: Most of Europe offers high-quality medical care that's as competent as what you'll find at home. Plus, the majority of doctors and pharmacists speak at least some English, so communication generally shouldn't be an issue.
If an accident or life-threatening medical problem occurs on the road, get to a hospital. For serious conditions (stroke, heart attack, bad car accident), summon an ambulance. In most countries, you can call 112, the European Union's universal emergency number for ambulance, fire department, or police. Most countries also have a 911 equivalent that works as well. Or you can ask your hotelier, restaurant host, or whoever's around to call an ambulance for you. If you're conscious and don't need immediate life-saving treatment, take a taxi to the hospital.
Be aware that you will likely have to pay out of pocket for any medical treatment, even if your insurance company provides international health care coverage. A visit to the emergency room can be free or cost only a nominal fee, or it can be expensive, depending on where you are and what treatment you need. Make sure you get a copy of your bill so that when you return home, you can file a claim to be reimbursed. If you purchased travel insurance to serve as your primary medical coverage, call the company as soon as possible to report the injury. They can usually work with the hospital directly to get your bills paid (for information on travel insurance, see page TK).[A: Paper Chase/Travel Insurance]
If you get sick on your trip, don't wait it out. Find help to get on the road to recovery as soon as possible. Here are your options if you have a non-emergency situation on your hands:
Pharmacies: Throughout Europe, people with a health problem go first to the pharmacy, not to their doctor. European pharmacists can diagnose and prescribe remedies for many simple problems, such as sore throats, fevers, stomach issues, sinus problems, insomnia, blisters, rashes, urinary tract infections, or muscle, joint, and back pain. Most cities have at least a few 24-hour pharmacies from which you can pick up what you need and be on the mend pronto.
When it comes to medication, expect some differences between the way things are done in Europe and at home. Certain drugs that you need a prescription for in the US are available over the counter in Europe. Some drugs go by different names. And some European medication can be stronger than their counterparts in the US, so follow directions and dosages carefully. Also, topical remedies are common in Europe; if you're suffering from body aches and pains, or any swelling, don't be surprised if a pharmacist prescribes a cream to apply to the problem area. If you need to fill a prescription — even one from home — a pharmacy can generally take care of it promptly. If a pharmacist can't help you, he or she will send you to a doctor or a health clinic.
Clinics: A trip to a clinic is actually an interesting travel experience. Every year I end up in a European clinic for one reason or another, and every time I'm impressed by its efficiency and effectiveness.
A clinic is useful if you want to be checked for a non-emergency medical issue, get some tests done, or if your problem is beyond a pharmacist's scope. Clinics in Europe operate just like those in the US: You'll sign in with the receptionist, answer a few questions, then take a seat and wait for a nurse or doctor.
A trip to a clinic generally costs about $75-150. Expect to pay this fee up front, whether you're covered through your health insurance company or a special travel policy. Make sure you get a copy of the bill so you can file a claim when you return home.
House Calls: If you're holed up sick in your hotel room and would rather not go out, the hotel receptionist can generally call a doctor who will come to your room and check you out.
Updated for 2012. For lots more tips, check out our best-selling Europe Through the Back Door travel skills guidebook.