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The basics
Study abroad : Once you arrive

Health & sickness abroad

What do you do when you get sick while abroad? Read our guide to finding the right health insurance, what to pack and more...

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Being sick is no fun. For most being ill makes us feel like all we want to do is be home with our family taking care of us. So what if you’re an international student currently studying in a new country? Getting sick can bring on feelings of homesickness as well and generally make you feel even worse. A simple case of the flu can turn into a full-fledged emotional meltdown!

It’s likely that you will get ill at some point while overseas even if it is just a common cold or something else that’s trivial. If you’re studying in an environment that is completely different to your own, you and your body may not be used to certain elements or be more susceptible to new ailments you don’t have at home.


Before you leave

It’s best to be over-prepared than unprepared. If you don’t know it, find out your blood type from your family or your doctor. Get a medical card with this on it, as well as any allergies or conditions you suffer from, medication you’re on etc. This card can also have details of your family doctor and how they can be contacted in an emergency. A medical card is usually small enough to fit in a wallet or purse so you have it on you at all times.


Your own medication

Of course if you have a slightly more serious condition which you take medication for, try to get enough medical supplies for your stay abroad until you can either return home to top up, or have some more sent to you. If it’s something personal to you, this might not be something you want to bring up with your new friends or housemates whom you’ve just met. Additionally you don't want to spend your first few days or weeks in a new country looking for medication which you might need in an emergency (especially with any language barriers involved).


Travelling with medication

If you do bring medications with you from home, check your flight and airline regulations for packing these. For security reasons, many airlines are very wary of passengers bringing needles, equipment and liquids on planes, particularly those flying into and from the US and the UK. You may have to check these with your luggage. However it is still a good idea to keep medication on you in your hand luggage while travelling to your study destination in case you are in transit for a long time, you get delayed or you lose your checked-in luggage/get separated from it. Again check with the airline on their website about what you are allowed to bring with you, how much of it you are allowed to bring and in what form.


Once you arrive

Register with your on-campus medical centre so they have you on their records. They can be your first point of call for anything health-related without you having to leave campus.

If you do feel comfortable telling a friend or housemate about any medical conditions you have, it’s probably wise as they can help you if you ever have problems. If you’re living in on-campus accommodation, you may have to let your housing office know of any such conditions too so they can help you if you need it (though this information will remain confidential).


Health insurance

Hopefully you won’t need professional medical treatment while studying abroad but it’s sometimes best to be safe. In some countries you will be required to be covered by health insurance prior to arriving as part of the country’s immigration process such as is the case in Australia. In America, healthcare is a major social issue as there is no free healthcare for everyone; instead everything is privatised so even basic hospital treatment will result in a bill or a claim on your insurance (if you don’t have health insurance, the hospital may say they can’t treat you if it’s not an emergency or move you elsewhere which can create delays in receiving treatment).

However in some countries like the UK, international students are entitled to free healthcare including if you require hospital treatment. Check out the video below as Adrian Dutch from City University, London explains what international students in the UK are entitled to:



Minor health issues

These might include things like a headache, flu or a cold, stomach ache, a minor cut or anything else which doesn’t include professional medical assistance.

If you live with others, pool a little money together for a group medicine or first aid kit to keep in your accommodation, rather than everyone buying things individually. You can usually purchase a standard kit from a pharmacy or a supermarket (even in the airport itself though this will be more expensive). If you don’t have a first aid kit item like a plaster/band-aid, painkiller or paracetamol/aspirin, your housemates will surely lend you anything you need. Plus if you’re in on-campus or managed accommodation with a university staff member present, you can always go to them if you have a problem.

Note: Make sure you have carefully read the bottle or packet for any medication before taking it in case you are allergic to anything it contains or so you know how to properly use the item. If you’re not sure about something, ask! When it comes to medication, this isn’t the opportunity to test your English skills; it’s always best to be safe and certain than to take a risk. When purchasing it, you can ask in confidence the pharmacist for instructions and to answer any questions you have.


3 illnesses to watch out for

Below Joyce from Mawista.com, a health insurance provider for international students, highlights 3 common illnesses to watch out for when studying in a new country:

'Doctors, who likes them?

Especially not in your college years, when most discomforts are due to a lot of drinking, and dozens of sleepless nights. Getting outside of your hometown sounds thrilling for a student who is looking for a great adventure; but you can also expect a boring day or two, when stuck inside sick.

There are these common unwritten rules about sharing among students, while adapting to a new environment (perhaps even a new weather climate). Crazy hours spent in the library, or holding down a part time job can wear anyone down; and chances for proper, nutritious meals like those back home, and a good night's sleep, can be slim to none.

As a student myself I might know a thing or two about the health problems students’ encounter while studying abroad and most importantly why it is crucial to have health insurance papers done the very first days you arrive in the country.

Common Cold

Firstly there are common colds, caused by various viruses, and which are usually season-specific. These are normally not serious; but without proper treatment, they can steal up to a week of your most precious time. Keep in mind, that between sitting with tens of other students in a lecture hall (which is occupied all day long), and fighting your way though busy bars and clubs, you’ll be in contact with more strangers than usual. As you’ll see below, ignoring a simple cold and running yourself (and your immune system) into the ground can lead to more serious ailments.


Without mum or dad around to remind you to clean up, student accommodation can be ripe for bacteria to run rife. While accommodation on campus is usually cleaned by professionals, this may only be once a week, and might not include your personal room. Try and resist a shower in the morning; instead, shower at the end of the day before you go to bed.  

Unfortunately tonsillitis – an inflammation of the tonsils – can only be cured with bed rest and fluids; something which is especially frustrating when you have an assignment due in, but you can’t concentrate on anything for longer than a minute.

If you’re ill, you’re ill. Universities will have in place a process if you are seriously ill and cannot fulfill an academic commitment. Speak to your tutor as soon as possible, and see if the due date can be postponed for you (take a note from the doctor if necessary).


Being away from home for the first time means freedom from parents, living on your own, and in some countries, being able to buy and consume alcohol; all of this can facilitate “rambunctiousness”. It’s no wonder that students become more sexually active at this time; and with some society activities, it can be wholeheartedly encouraged in the name of fun (it all depends on where you choose to hang out at of course). It’s easy to say to practise safe sex, but takes steps so there is never a chance that you’ll be tempted not to; this might involve stocking up on protection in advance, or even reconsidering the people you, ahem, “spend time with”.

Familiarise yourself with the campus health centre, and any initiatives they have in place. This way you can get help from an authoritative source who won’t judge you, instead of someone you have only known for a few weeks.'


Read more:

'Health and Insurance in America'

'Health and Insurance in the UK'

'Health and Insurance in Australia'

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