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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.

Sickness and Traveling with Kids 2

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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Amy

Friday 11th of December 2015

I'm going to travel to Central America in about a year in a more rural area with my almost 4 and 3 year old. Has anyone got experience or advice on handling the heat and bugs? Also how to be prepared for adverse reactions to that or food?Thank you!

milesforfamily

Saturday 5th of December 2015

I can very much relate to your story. My 4-year old son got sick in Jamaica and was throwing up for two days. I don't believe it was food poisoning (he swallowed a lot of pool and sea water), but there is no way to know for sure. It is gut wrenching to see your child in pain, period. And he still remembers it very clearly, even after 8 months. That's why I probably won't be going back to that resort, in spite of the fact that my daughter had the time of her life there. Balancing adventure and safety is tough when you have small kids. I very much agree with you, it's important to be selective with your destinations. In ideal world, moms wouldn't have to think about these issues. But this is real world, and bad things like food poisoning happen all too often.

eileen

Sunday 29th of November 2015

Food poisoning is awful no matter where you are and it's hard to be that sick away from home. We try to be adventurous even with a child and not let worry hold us back unnecessarily. But we are more conservative than we would be traveling alone. We're heading to Africa later winter and we all got extra vaccines, though other family members who have been to the same destinations without kids skipped them. I also asked my pediatrician to give me antibiotics that we can take with us. And we will think more carefully about what cities we visit, what activities we do and what we eat.

Mums do travel

Sunday 29th of November 2015

I'm so sorry for you all, what a shame. My kids have been sick in various countries over the years, but it's never been anything serious, thankfully. It is very hard when they're sick, because they just want the comforts of home. The only thing that my son remembers from a wonderful week in Turkey when he was eight years old is the night he spent throwing up after swallowing some swimming pool water! Health and safety is definitely a big consideration for me when travelling as a family.

Jenna Francisco (@thismyhappiness)

Saturday 28th of November 2015

That must have been so hard! I'm so glad everyone is OK. I took my older son to Bali when he was less than 2 years old. My husband got sick on the trip but fortunately my son was fine. Then on the way back, he caught a nasty virus that affected the inside of his mouth, and he couldn't eat for a week! And my younger son got a life-threatening illness in Brazil. Actually, both of those things could have happened in the U.S., too, but...Traveling with kids to places where bacteria are different or the water is not always safe to drink is a risk, and as you said, bloggers should talk about safety and illness more, not as a way to make people worried or paranoid, but to help people be prepared for what can happen with kids.