Today I’m going to talk about how to successfully survive an illness while abroad. Specifically in Japan, but some of these insights might apply elsewhere as well. About a week after I arrive in school and was just getting over jet lag, I got a cold that lasted roughly 9 or 10 days and it was freaking miserable. Now, I made a bunch of mistakes and I’m determined to help you not do the same.
I had been feeling weird for a few days but one morning about half way through my first class I felt death’s cold breath down my neck, so I went to the health center. Turns out I had a solid fever, and what would turn out to be a very bad long lasting cold. Now in Japan, colds are not really excused. Like, you better be puking your guts up to take a sick day, because a cough won’t cut it. Or at least that’s what every blog I ever read said. And while this might be true of work culture, this didn’t apply to my college. Certainly, it is always better to go to class if you can but the International center helped me work things out with the teacher whose class I missed. And luckily, as far as I know, I’ve received no penalties for it. That being said, Japanese Colleges are significantly more chill than workplaces or even high schools here.
Japan, despite being advanced in many weird ways, is also very behind in many weird ways. In the place where you can order just about anything from a machine and ask little helping robots questions in grocery stores and coffee shops, you still have to go to work and be around thousands of people when you’re sick. My doctor told me before I arrived in Japan that she believes most, if not all flus, originate in Asia. At the time, I thought it was an insane thing to say, but now I’m not so sure. Because there is an expectation for people to work even when sick, you are exposing basically everyone, to every illness circling at any given time. In addition, while I was sick, many people told me it was because of the weather, saying things like “Yeah, the weather keeps changing from hot and cold right?” or “Did you bring an umbrella, getting wet can make you sick!”
Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but it’s still baffling to me. I’m sure if it is just something they say or if they really believe that the weather and not bacteria and viruses cause colds. Who knows though, because old wives tales live a long time, even in America. Anyway, this mindset means that sick people are around all the time. They don’t stay home and what ends up happening is you have several hundred people packed into a tiny train, all breathing the same air and I could swear at least 30% are sick at any given time. They often wear face masks, which I guess is helpful but if you were eating and coughed into your hand, then held onto a place handle, the next person to grab that has now been infected. Japanese people must have great immune systems or they’d just be sick all the time.
When I first got sick, I went to a walk-in clinic after being sent by my school’s health center. There was only one doctor so they did the quickest exam possible and gave me some medicine. I swear this medicine made me worse, or at the very least did nothing to help. I took it as directed and after 2 or 3 days of feeling not the slightest bit better, I stopped taking them and started to feel better… go figure. After that, I spent another two days thinking I couldn’t do anything because I have watch videos and read articles that said Japan doesn’t have drug stores or you can’t really get any actual over the counter medicine, you have to get it from the doctor and I’m here to say THAT IS NOT TRUE!!!
Luckily, my “big sister” a Japanese girl assigned to look after me, brought me over the counter medicine that actually worked. I will add a picture of it in case you need it. I believe she found it at a convenience store actually, but I could be wrong. It shows on the front in little pictures what it helps and all that. I also discovered that there are cough drops. They’re actually meant for voice care for singing apparently but they work well as cough drops. I think they’re made of natural teas, but I swear they work just as well. They’re kind of hard to find though because they’re found in the candy aisle. I found them low and out of the way, but they were there! I will also put a picture for these.
Don’t do what I did and not get medicine and the things you need simply because of what you read online. Regardless of where you are, go look anyway. At worst, you’ll find some sick herb shop and you’ll end up with some fantastic herbal medicine. Don’t knock it til you try it. Some herbal stuff works better! Either way, don’t just sit through it miserable like I did. Also, unless you need a doctor’s note (which you can only get for throwing up illnesses (ie the flu)), if you know your body and what you need to get better, I’d suggest maybe skipping the doctor’s visits. Even as a resident with national health insurance, while it was only like $17 totally roughly, it can add up, especially if you’re a tourist who doesn’t have proper insurance. And even then, the multiple visits they might suggest can also stack up. In addition, the lines are long. Plan to wait way longer then you’re going to want to while you’re not feeling well.
HOWEVER, if you are feeling abnormal or particularly bad, go see a doctor. Go to a walk-in or a general hospital just to be safe. If for any reason you’re feeling that possibility of needing to go to a hospital, listen to your body, you know yourself the best.
Every culture has some form of sick food. You will likely not be able to get your sick comfort food while you’re abroad but find out what that country deems sick food. You get to learn more about a culture and you know you’re going to be getting good food for healing. In my household, it’s chicken soup and soft boiled eggs, here it’s a stew-like thing with rice and broth. Of course, you’re not going to want to cook, so at least in Japan, you can get instant Miso, which is what I lived off of for several days along with more basic types of ramen. I don’t suggest going for the fancy ramen or instant noodles, all the extra meat and even the noodles can hurt your stomach when you’re sick.
Quick survival guide for being sick while abroad!
-Don’t listen to blogs, Japan has drugstores, get the medicine you need. The label are usually easy to figure out but if not find a clerk who speaks English, there’s usually one, or find someone and point to what is wrong, they can probably help you.
-Those aren’t candies, they’re cough drops, good ones too. Use them.
-Go to a doctor if it’s an emergency, otherwise take it easy and give it a few days.
-Drink lots of fluids (ie: water, soup, tea, etc.)
-If you can, have a reserve of quick easy sick food ready, if not, when you start feeling sick, it’s time to build up that stock, because you’re not going to want to go out later, trust me.
–Avoid sugar and dairy. (I know you might have gotten ice cream as a kid but sugar and dairy are best friends with the bacteria residing in your body right now.)
-Rest, don’t let the Japanese culture work you into a serious medical situation. (Plus, you get a little leeway because you’re a foreigner.)
-Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you are in a dorm situation like I am, every one of your roommates or floormates will not only be excited at the chance to meet you but a lot of Japanese people love to help out and they know how you feel and how best to help you. Remember, they’ve been living here a lot longer than you. (Don’t forget to be appreciative!)
I made a lot of mistakes. I probably pushed myself too hard. Went out with friends when I started feeling better even though I should have rested. I didn’t get the medicine I needed right away and I didn’t necessarily eat all the right things. There was one day when I was out of soup and I was so hungry but I didn’t feel well enough to go to the store so I didn’t eat…. That’s also not good. If you can eat, do. It will help quicken the process.
Fortunately, I’m all better now. And I have a new camera and a new phone! (Oh yeah, my phone died if I didn’t already say, more on that later). You know, I did go pray at a shrine for my bad luck to leave and what do you know, things are getting better. I’m sure it’s a correlation but I’m going with it.
If you found these tips helpful leave a like! If you think you know someone who could benefit from my experiences, share it with them! And as always, I love to hear from you guys. Do you have any horror story about being sick while away from home? How did you handle it? Let me know in the comments below! Have any follow-up questions? Feel free to leave me a message or a comment, I would be happy to answer as best I can! Thanks for reading!