Infectious: If Only I Were Talking About My Personality

Note: This post has photos and details about medical ailments due to travel. If you are queasy or easily grossed out, perhaps it’s best to skip this one and check back in later!

February 2011. Friends were coming to stay at our house for the weekend. Two days before they were to  arrive, my sister decided we had to tell them. I thought it wasn’t a big deal, but then again, when you’ve had the same recurring (highly contagious) infection for, oh about 8 months, it probably shouldn’t be taken lightly. I had a severe staph infection.  And by severe, I mean I was scrambling to get my health insurance in order, after hearing about someone my brother-in-law knew that died because it got into his bloodstream. Severe in that in a matter of two days the redness had spread from the spots under my arm to about six inches down my arm. Severe in that in just three days from noticing it, I was unable to easily lift my arm. I was in excruciating pain. I couldn’t sleep. I was taking one of the strongest antibiotics on the market and with no signs of improvement, my doctor doubled the dosage, and I had to also put antibiotic cream up my nose. I even tried tumeric as an alternative therapy. I don’t think I had ever been so worried about my health.

So how did I get to that point?

Rewind. August 2010. I arrived in Cape Town at 2am and crashed at my ride’s apartment. I woke up the next morning and my lip was sticking off my face. I felt like a duck. I looked so funny that to walk around Cape Town I held my upper lip in by biting it with my lower teeth. It was most likely where the staph infection originated, since your face is a common place to get it. This was probably staph incident number one on my rtw trip. My mom works for a doctor so to the left is the photo I sent her of me trying to smile.

Then in October 2010, I got an infection in my leg while in Malaysia. It looked like a bug bite. Then, it started to get bigger. I put some neosporin on it. It continued to get larger. It started to hurt to walk, and when I sat down, you could visibly see a lump on my leg through my pants. I went through three different types of antibiotic creams. I was in denial, hoping that it would drain on its own, but at the insistence of my friend, I realized I needed to visit the doctor. It wasn’t like your typical doctor’s office with a nurse and a receptionist; it was a one man show. We discussed Kentucky Fried Chicken longer than we discussed my ailment. He decided I had been “stung”. Seeing as how the spot was on my upper leg (it would have been covered with clothing at all times), I didn’t believe him. But I had just returned from Bali where I had been in a swimsuit, so maybe he was right. I left with some penicillin, and the following evening the pressure finally became too great, and it drained about halfway. It took the spot about six weeks to get back to being flush with my skin. But, I thought that was the end of it.

Until February 2011. A spot appeared under my arm. I ignored it. I went for a 10 mile run and returned with two spots under my arm (clearly, sweat and rubbing against my own skin did not help). I stupidly ignored them and shaved (note: razors spread staph). They grew rapidly and burned. I had put ‘Get health insurance’ on my to do list but hadn’t gotten around to it. I got on the phone asap. By this point, it dawned on me (and everyone else) that this was most likely a staph infection.

Infection Day 2
Infection Day 4 (I circled the spreading)

I was using warm compresses and antibiotic creams. I sought help, as stated in the start of the post, but in just a few days I was not able to lift my arm- well, it scared me.  Luckily, the swelling started to go down, and it didn’t have to be drained. I have scarring from it, but I’ll take that any day over the alternatives.

The staph infection was probably one of the worst incidences from my trip. However, it wasn’t the only one. Here are some other medical issues I came across:

April 2010: Food poisoning in Jordan. When it wouldn’t go away on its own, I had to start using the prescription meds that I had brought on my trip.

June 2010: Hit by a motorbike in Malawi. Bruised or cracked a few ribs. If you can, steer clear of getting hit by any motorized vehicle. This one took me two solid months to recover. Aside from the obvious pain, and the fact that I wasn’t able to sit up on my own for two months (I had to roll over on my side and push myself up to get out of bed), my body physically couldn’t sneeze during that time. I had moments of hopelessness when I was itching to run and wondering how long it would take to heal.

October 2010: The week before my staph infection in Malaysia, I caught a virus that left me throwing up in Bali. It was draining and I had to hole up in the hotel room for a day and a half.

I think that about covers the major medical incidents. I got a couple of colds along the way and I also stopped taking malaria meds due to side effects, but that’s about it. My friend that I traveled with in southeast Asia battled eye infections. Which, funnily enough, when we traveled together a couple of years ago in Africa, she also had eye issues and I also got skin infections (but that time in my foot). We follow a pattern. We both had worldwide travel insurance, and during our first trip to Africa it more than paid for itself between our medical bills. Let’s hope, though, that we’ve put an end to the pattern!

I’m keeping my fingers crossed because I have a clean bill of health and hope it will continue to be that way for many months (okay, I leave for South Africa in six weeks…  Africa isn’t always kind to me in the health department).

What have been your worst ailments on the road?

21 thoughts on “Infectious: If Only I Were Talking About My Personality

  • When I came back from 9 months in the Philippines I had an ulcer. Although no one technically knows what causes it my doctor in Canada, also Filipino suspects it’s just a bacteria I picked up.

    • I think it’s easier to pick up bacteria while traveling. The one I got a few years ago in my foot was easily avoidable… I went barefoot the entire week I spent on Zanzibar, however this time around I’m not sure how I got it. With all the transport and accommodation changes though, there are plenty of places I could have picked it up.

    • Well, I was slightly hesitant to post the photos, because they’re not exactly flattering but this is the reality of travel sometimes. I’m glad you found it interesting ;) I’m hoping to stay healthy this summer but am coming prepared with my own set of medications this time!

  • The worst thing I had was twisting my knee in New Zealand, and having surgery after that. But I haven’t been to Asia or Africa yet, so how knows what will happen there. It’s definitely a good thing to get travel insurance. You never know when you will need it, but once you do need it, it can save you a lot of money.

    • Thank goodness I have never had to have surgery abroad. Huge fear of mine- which is why I pay a whole $5 extra on my travel insurance to be flown anywhere in the world of my choosing should an emergency arise.

  • Just stomach bugs and allergies over here. Took 3 weeks before we could really stomach anything without getting sick!

    Staph infections are scary!

  • I know this was scary! It’s easy to want to ignore something and hope it gets better (I know) — “get health insurance” is on my list too, so this reminds me that I’d better do it soon. Like for real O:-)

    Be sure Adam sees this post ;-)

  • My wife and I are planning an RTW that starts in Southeast Asia but you’re sort of scaring us. Did you pick up these bugs in remote jungle areas or cities?

    • Michael,
      I was in a mix of rural areas and cities. I could have picked it up anywhere as staph is contagious. It doesn’t matter how hygiene-conscious you are, you can still get it. I think you’re more likely to get it abroad than at home simply because you might be in dirtier conditions (on public transport, etc) and living in communal settings like hostels. It shouldn’t scare you but just take necessary precautions. Use bug spray to avoid malaria (and medicine if you choose), be careful about what unfiltered water you choose to drink as well as avoiding eating the peels of uncooked fruits and vegetables. I think if you’re going around the world, you’re bound to get stomach bugs and/or some sort of infection at some point… or maybe I just have really bad luck!

  • Oh yes. I know all too well about the “Bali Incident”. I haven’t really gotten too sick overseas. Just the usual bouts of food poisoning. I did crash a motorbike and my other half at the time had to return home and have a couple of surgeries, but I was as good as gold.

      • Yeah, crashing a motorbike is bad at any speed. You come off, you cut yourself up and if you’re unlucky, break a few bones. The tiniest things send you off the bike too, like chickens and dogs darting in front of the bike or like in my case, a branch of a tree falling onto the road. In a car, you just jam on the brakes and all is ok. On a bike, you fall off.

  • That is a pretty scary incident Laura. As travelers, we are always concerned about our health. No one wants to get sick while abroad without the comforts of home and help of friends and family. Thanks for sharing this although you might have been uncomfortable doing so.

  • Yikes, you poor thing! I got a crazy liver infection in Vietnam and was sick for ages – couldn’t drink for months. Was so glad when it cleared up :-) I think getting sick is just part of you travel, but you always hope it will stop just at a funny tummy!

    • A liver infection?? How do manage to get that?! Obviously there are so many other infections that I have yet to catch… you’re gonna have to provide me more details on this before I undertake a huge google search ;)

  • Out of curiousity, what worldwide coverage do you have? I am contemplating a trip longer than an American ‘vacation’ and just starting to research health insurance that will cover me outside of the US. I, too, have bad luck….foot infections, sprained knees but nothing like your photos! Ouch!

  • While my experiences aren’t travel related nor disease related but certainly medically related. I have had more than 30 variety of surgeries since birth until 10 years ago. I know what its like to constantly go to the Dr, with that in mind I have a little fear of what it would be like to sea Dr abroad as I’m so accustomed to our medical standards in the states.

    Now,as far as my “RTW” experience, I haven’t gone RTWing really yet but each trip brings me a lot closer to doing so. I went to Hawaii a couple weeks ago, I got sick the day of my flight and I rode it out all the way home and we aren’t sure if I had food poisoning or just the flu, but I spent 5 days (2 of those days mostly in pain) I thought I was going to vomit shortly after getting airborne from Honolulu but I slept the entire flight except to use the can.

    My biggest fear isn’t getting sick itself, my fear is getting sick in-flight or in a foreign country.

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