Travel Health Emergencies: How to Be Prepared

Handle health issues on the road with composure—plan ahead, consider urgent-care facilities and know that help can be just a phone call away.

I don’t consider myself a reactionary parent.

I’m pretty lax with the small stuff when it comes to my 3-year-old. Choosing your battles is a hard lesson to learn, but it’s possibly the most valuable one—at least it has been for me.

Like when your kid wants M&Ms for breakfast and won’t take no for an answer. Sometimes, it’s OK to give in. Sure, it isn’t the healthiest way to start the day, but what the heck.

Ya gotta live a little, no?

But when it comes to my daughter’s physical well being, I can be a bit of stickler. Since she started preschool this past fall, it seems like she’s been ill 51 out of 52 weeks. Strep throat, bronchitis, a staph infection on her face, and various viruses and head colds kept her home almost more than she went to school.

Even so, I try to keep my head and only take her to the doctor when I really have to. Not only does she carry on like I’m cutting her leg off, but any mom worth her salt knows that doctor’s offices and emergency rooms are teeming with germs.

Wanna get sick? Dude, go see your doctor. One year we picked up the World’s Worst Stomach Flu at her pediatrician’s office.

Visiting the Emergency Room

So you know if I am making a trip to the emergency room—especially when we’re traveling—that I am scared witless.

We did just that in May, during a visit to Ohio to see my in-laws. Emmeline had a high fever for five days straight and woke up screaming that her neck hurt one morning at the unheard-of hour of 11 a.m. (She never, EVER, sleeps past 8 a.m.)

I was certain she had meningitis, and our only choice was to take her to the hospital. Four hours, one rectal thermometer and a cup of vanilla ice cream later, the docs said she was fine, thank goodness.

I hated to take her, but it was a judgment call I felt had to be made.

Identifying an Emergency

It got me thinking about all the things that can go wrong when you travel with kids. It’s not an experience I care to repeat any time soon, so I turned to the experts to find out when you can slide by with some children’s aspirin, and when you need to bust out the big guns.

Dr. Anne Brayer is a pediatric emergency medicine specialist at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., and she says there are some symptoms you just can’t ignore.

“The top warning signs that something is seriously wrong are breathing difficulty, sucking in the skin between their ribs on the chest wall, or turning pale or blue,” Brayer says. “In a younger child, you should look for inconsolable crying, especially with a fever higher than 102.5 degrees, and lethargy with fever.”

In older kids, she adds, a high fever with a headache, stiff neck or a rash that doesn’t clear briefly when you press your finger against it can be signs of meningicoccus—the bacteria that causes meningitis.

Whew! I wasn’t freaking out over nothing. My daughter had a fever, stiff neck and a rash the day we took her to the hospital in Cleveland. Symptoms like hers definitely require a visit to the ER.

In-N-Out Urgent Care

However, less urgent ailments can be easily—and quickly—assessed at a local urgent-care facility. An urgent-care facility is generally open seven days a week, and can examine and treat most ordinary illnesses.

Dr. Thomas L. Campbell is the William Rocktaschel Professor and Chair in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester, N.Y., and he says that an urgent-care facility should always be your first line of defense when traveling.

“You will likely get much more prompt care at an urgent care center,” Campbell advises. “Average waits at ERs can range from three to twelve hours.”

Tell me about it.

Campbell adds that such centers are often less expensive than an ER visit, and easy to reach by phone. If you are in doubt, give the center in your area a call and tell them what symptoms concern you.

“They can usually tell you whether it is likely to be a problem that they can handle,” Campbell says. “Many urgent care centers can even treat simple lacerations and fractures.”

No matter where you wind up, he says, you should also call your own doctor before you make the decision to see a medical professional in a different city or state, no matter if it is the ER or a clinic.

“It makes sense to contact your personal physician, or the person covering your physician, if you have a health problem or illness while traveling,” Campbell explains. “He or she can advise you as to how to handle the problem, whether you need to seek health care at all, and how urgently. Depending on your insurance, your physician may have to authorize a visit to an ER.” 

Handling Health Insurance

Ah, yes, the dreaded health insurance question. Our little band of four is currently covered under the health plan for graduate students at the Huge Midwestern University where my husband is a doctoral fellow … and I used the word “covered” very loosely.

We didn’t bother to call—we knew the bill would be outrageous no matter what—but Campbell is right. If you have coverage, it’s easier to get the go-ahead beforehand than to deal with insurance claims from an out-of-state hospital.

We’ve done that, too, back when I was a corporate fat cat and my husband fell ill—in Ohio.

Hmmm. Ohio, again. I’m sensing a pattern here.

Speaking of the grown-ups, parents can get sick, too. I know, hard to believe we aren’t made of Teflon, isn’t it? Trust me—spend an hour with my kid, and you’ll be hacking up a lung before you can say “over-the-counter cough medicine.”

Campbell has some advice for the big people, too. If you or your adult traveling-partner experience any of the following, get thee to a doctor (er, a phone, so you can ask permission from your doctor):

“It is generally much easier to assess the severity of an illness or injury in an adult,” Campbell adds.

Take it from me—I’m the queen of bad vacation karma. I think my next trip will be to buy a giant bubble for us to live in.

Themes: Family Travel

User Comments

Medical emergency happens in an unexpected situation. It is good to be prepared by being aware of what to do and where to go. Everyone knows what they will and will not be prepared to do for family. Personally, I'd do anything for my family. A cash advance is an enormous help when family members are in trouble and need help. For example, the cost of medical procedures can cost more than a person can bear.

Know the closest ER Great advice here. My daughter recently got appendicitis while we were away from home. I called our own doc, who advised us to go to the ER. Thankfully, the apartment we'd rented came with a helpful binder of info that included the names of two local ERs. Since it was 4 a.m. at the time, I was really glad to have that info readily available.