What do you do when your child gets sick or hurt while traveling?

Teddy suffering altitude sickness at dinnerLast week when we were in Keystone, Teddy really struggled with the altitude. He has asthma, and I had been particularly careful to make sure he was medicated and well hydrated both before our arrival and during our stay, but he still had a couple of bad nights and one evening when we dined at 12,000 feet he couldn’t enjoy the meal very much at all because he felt so nauseous. (I’ll be sharing tips for managing high altitudes with kids in a later post).

It would have been easy for this to ruin our vacation, but the fact is that it didn’t. Matt and I worked as a team to care for Teddy in the night; we also monitored his situation carefully and used his cues to make decisions about he was able to do instead of just throwing our hands and assuming that he needed to sit in our condo. And in fact, despite these problems he skied for three full days and had a great time. By the time we left he was feeling much better.

As I think back over almost a decade of traveling with kids, I realize that during that time we’ve had to deal with everything from colds to rashes to splinters on the road. There was the time that Teddy got stung by an entire nest of wasps that was living, unbeknownst to us, underneath the swing we had just put him in; the time we thought Tommy might have a ruptured appendix and ended up in the emergency room so he could have an ultrasound of his small abdomen; and the time I accidentally spilled scalding coffee on Tommy’s neck. These kinds of problems used to cast much more of a pall over our travels than they now do – as I’ve become more experienced a traveler and parent I’ve learned a few things about handling crises. I’ve also developed a set of strategies for dealing with illness and injury on the road.

Stay hydrated and hygienic. As far as I’m concerned, prevention is the best cure, and two of the best ways to battle illness on the road are to make sure that everyone drinks enough (this is especially true on airplanes) and that we all wash our hands as much as possible. Where soap and water aren’t available, I use hand sanitizer. And I regularly clean off those smart phones and tablets that the kids play games on. I’m not neurotic about germs at all but I’ve learned the hard way that it pays to be careful when you’re using public transportation or bathrooms.

Pack a first aid kit. I always pack a kit containing antiseptic cream, cleansing wipes, bandages, pain relief for both children and grownups (both ibuprofen and acetaminophen), tweezers, and also an antihistamine (I like Benadryl). The latter is to give in the event of bites or stings – when Teddy met those unhappy wasps, I gave him some of this right away and within a half hour the swelling had gone down and he was comfortable. It probably wouldn’t hurt to throw in a thermometer, although in truth I don’t always remember to carry one. And of course, you should have plenty of whatever prescription medications your children take and, if necessary, a backup pair of glasses.

Keep your pediatrician’s number handy – and don’t be afraid to use it. On more than one occasion, I’ve called the boys’ doctor with a health question from the road. This has saved us both expense and trouble in a variety of ways. She’s let me know that a visit to urgent care isn’t necessary, told me what questions to ask when we have had to see a doctor, and even on one occasion called in a prescription for a cream that cleared up a nasty rash Teddy was suffering from.

When you’re traveling in a foreign country, know the emergency phone number. Thankfully I’ve only ever had to dial emergency once during my parenting life, but it happened in London. As I fumbled, panicked, with a screaming, naked toddler whose neck was puffy and red after some of my latte accidentally landed on it, I was grateful that I had coached myself and knew to call 999 instead of 911. (On a related note, it’s also not a bad idea to learn the names of common medications. For example, I discovered later that same day that acetaminophen is called paracetamol in England. That I discovered this in the pediatric emergency room when the doctor wanted to give it to Tommy was less than ideal.)

My final piece of advice is to be flexible when a member of your family isn’t feeling well. A cold or stomach bug on the road doesn’t have to ruin your vacation, as long as you are willing to adjust your expectations, listen to your child, and change your plans accordingly. Slow down, schedule breaks and rest, and make sure everyone is fed well. If there’s more than one adult on the trip, try tag teaming so that each of you gets a chance to do some sightseeing. And most importantly: Try not to lose your sense of humor! Part of the adventure of travel is dealing with whatever comes your way, in sickness and in health.

I’ve shared my tips for handling illness or injury on the road – now it’s your turn. Please feel free to share your own experiences in the comments below.

Reader Responses

6 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. I always bring a first aid kit, it’s a obsession of mine. One time my son got crazy sick on a trip and we couldn’t find any private clinics so I took him to the public one in Costa Rica, it was the best experience ever.

    no waiting line, the doc spoke perfect english, they did it all for free and gave us free medicine.

    You can’t beat that.

    But it’s terrible when kids get sick – anywhere!

  2. Prior to one trip where we were heading to a rural area and internet would be spotty, my oldest started showing signs of a bad cold. In case it got worse or we’d need help, I researched in advance the closest 24-hour clinic and closest hospital with an ER. We never needed it, but it made us more confident to have it. I’ve tried to remember to do that prior to every trip now. Even when I know we’ll have internet access, who wants to spend time figuring that out when you’ve got a sick kid that needs attention?

  3. Great tips! We always travel with a first aid kit which has come in handy a few times. We have also had a few incidents where we have had to consult a doctor while traveling (in Florida, Hawaii, the Bahamas and on a cruise ship).

    A couple of incidents (both involving my younger daughter Emma) were quite scary but fortunately worked out ok. The first was when she was almost 4 in Alaska and we had gone on a covered wagon ride in Denali Park about an hour from any sort of civilization. A bee went up her pant leg and stung her, she started to scream and the spot on her leg started to swell. All I could think was that we were an hour from help if she was having an allergic reaction. Fortunately there was a nurse among the other guests and she got some ice, confirmed there was no stinger in her leg and Emma eventually calmed down. I learned never again to go in the bush without ointment to counteract insect stings!

  4. I always bring along Tylenol and a thermometer because you know kids only run a fever in the middle of the night. Great tip about knowing the local emergency phone number. We’re in Puerto Rico right now and I like to think it’s 911, but who knows. I may need to Google that right after I leave this comment! :)

  5. Thank you, the article is full of tips and advices that any parent with an ailing child can benefit from. Great article.

  6. Great tips! There’s nothing worse than having a sick child or sick children.

    Here are some other tips:

    – Visit the doctor before going on vacation and get medications refilled.

    – Take life saving classes like CPR, Heimlich Maneuver, etc.

    – Have children bring a toy or stuffed animal with them. If they get sick, they can hold onto it which will comfort them.

    Happy travels!

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