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Sickness and Traveling with Kids: The Fear and the Reality

Sickness and Traveling with Kids 1

Happy and healthy at Chichen Itza the day before food poisoning.

There are a million reasons NOT to travel with your kids.  The news the past few weeks has been filled with terror – the scariest travel deterrent.  There are reasons for any traveler to be concerned and take precautions, but I know the fear often weighs heaviest on those of us who travel with the littlest companions.

The more common deterrents for family travelers, however, are often simply the mundane: budgets, stress, time, logistics, and more.  As my family prepared for a Thanksgiving vacation to Panama and Mexico this year, the news of the Paris attacks truly seemed a world away.  I spent the most of my preparation time getting ready to handle the little things like car seats, nap schedules, and transportation.

As a mom of a two year old and a six year old, my travel week turned out to indeed be filled with much more mundane but somehow also very scary travel moments.  A different kind of travel reality hit my family this week as we traveled across Latin America with our young children: illness.

Sickness and Travel with Kids

Our daughter’s french fry addiction saved her from illness this trip – for once, not eating the more exotic local food was a positive.

Sickness is something that I don’t see family travelers writing enough about.  The reality is that Americans live in one of the most sanitized civilizations in world history.  When we leave that bubble with our kids in tow, there are bound to be moments where the microbe world intervenes to spoil our best-laid plans.

Of course, you can break a leg or catch a bug anywhere.  Some destinations, however, significantly elevate that risk.  There are some places I simply won’t take my kids because the risks are too high.  There are other destinations – like Mexico – that seem quite safe for the vast majority of travelers but nevertheless involve taking on a somewhat greater calculated risk if you choose to visit.

My family started our journey in Panama (a destination that is quite safe for Americans in terms of food and drink) a week before Thanksgiving.  On our first full day in the city, my two year old son awoke to a stomach bug.  After drinking his morning sippy cup of milk, he promptly climbed out of bed and threw it all up.  Thank goodness for modern hotel design with tile floors.

He seemed to bounce back quickly, as kids often do.  Not wanting to waste a moment in a new country, I attempted to set out with him and his big sister later that afternoon to visit a zoo in town.  Not 5 minutes into our Uber ride, he threw up all over himself and me in the car.  We headed back to hotel to try to recover again.  Thanks to my husband skipping a few business meetings, we managed to salvage a bit of our time in Panama, at least for my older child.

Sickness and Traveling with Kids 4

At the ill-fated dinner – with evidence of the tainted pico de gallo on his highchair tray.

Surely lightening wouldn’t strike twice in one trip, right?  Well, it did.  After our Panamanian adventures, my family set off for Cancun, Mexico for four days of sunning and relaxing on the beach.  Our domicile at the Westin Lagunamar Ocean Resort in Cancun couldn’t have been safer.  The water is filtered.  American sensibilities, currency, and all-you-can-drink blended margaritas abound.  We decided though not to be those dumb Americans who never left the confines of our super-Western resort.  On our third night in town, we went to a seafood restaurant down the road for dinner with our son while our daughter enjoyed a pizza party in the resort’s kids club.

During dinner, my toddler son prepared chips dipped in Mexican salsa (pico de gallo) for my husband all evening.  Although my son – like his mother – wasn’t much of a fan of the dish himself, he ate a bite or two and definitely had the salsa all over his fingers.  No fewer than two hours after arriving home, both my husband and my son became dreadfully ill within minutes of one another.  This was classic food poisoning at work.

I spent much of that night in Mexico cradling my barely two year old son in my arms on the floor of the bathroom in our idyllic condominium as he writhed in pain.  It was one of my tougher moments as a parent.  All he could say with his limited vocabulary was “tummy!” again and again as the sickness hit him in waves. There was truly nothing I could do to ease his pain or make him feel better.  Meanwhile my husband was going through the same just feet from us.  Montezuma’s revenge was taken, to be sure.

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Husband and son the day after their vacation illness.

I’ve struggled a lot with what to do from the lessons of this otherwise amazing vacation.  The rest of our 8 day trip was filled with new and invigorating experiences – for me as well as for my children.  But my child’s suffering weighs heavily on my heart.  He won’t remember the amazing new experiences.  Of course, he won’t remember the pain either.  But my memories of this trip will be forever tainted – if ever so slightly – by his moments of suffering from a preventable illness.

I fear these experiences will make me gun-shy when it comes to some kinds of international travel in the future.  The threat of terror is real but truly very remote and it is therefore somewhat easier to discount.  The threat of sickness is just very, very common.  Sickness is not a question of “if” but only of “when” for a frequent traveler.  I’m lucky to come from a family of doctors where help is only a text message away but being ill in a foreign country scares me.  This time, we luckily didn’t even have to navigate seeking medical care and I know that would have been that much more challenging and frightening.

Watching distress and anguish in a baby, toddler, or young child is hard to bear, especially far from home.  I can handle it and assume the risk when it comes to myself, but I’m not sure I would do things exactly the same again when traveling with my toddler.  At the very least, we’d be more careful with food and probably stick a little closer to our resort.  I know I may look like the fearless and adventurous explorer as much as I travel with my kids, but the reality is that I’m definitely a bit of a worrier and a micro-manager.  Sickness hits me at both of those weak spots.

Of course, the memory is still quite raw for me at the moment so perhaps the passage of time will help change my mind.  I’m sure 2016 has lots of new and worthy adventures in store that my kids and I shouldn’t miss out on…

Have you traveled with a young child who has gotten sick?  Has it altered the way you travel?  Does the threat of sickness dictate where you take your kids?

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