College Students, Chronic Illness, + Study Abroad: What You Need to Know 

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GoAbroad helps you figure out how to study abroad with a chronic illness

Editorial note: This piece was originally published in GoAbroad ebook on Meaningful Travel for Health and Chronic Illness. With helpful articles and tips from other travelers with chronic illnesses, this is your new favorite resource if you are considering studying abroad with chronic pain or sickness. Get your copy of this awesome ebook here.

A lot of us college students are creatures of routine. The decision to study abroad uproots us from the rhythm of the day-to-day and introduces new people, cultures, languages, and systems. For most, the departure from a well-adjusted life at our university is a necessity and a refreshing step to gaining exposure to everything new and exciting that awaits us beyond our literal and figurative borders.

brightly colored sneakers walking up stone stairs

Take the world by storm and study abroad.

But, if you’re one of the millions who live with a chronic health condition, that predictability of the everyday routine is anything but negative. Predictability means you know where your doctors are, where your next treatments will come from, or which 24-hour pharmacy will answer your late-night phone calls. Leaving healthcare norms is truly a privilege; even imagining an extended period of time away from the health systems you know and depend upon can be straight-up frightening.

Because of this, many people with chronic illnesses will elect not to go abroad. For many, this is a wise and calculated decision. Still, there are many who are stable enough to enjoy a meaningful travel experience—yes, you can study abroad with a chronic illness. If that’s your dream, there are absolutely ways to make it happen. Don’t let the fear of “elsewhere” derail a powerful and potentially life-changing experience. Here is what you need to know if you’re a college student with a chronic illness who wants to study abroad.

Are you even ready for, or capable of, traveling with a chronic illness?

Unfortunately, not every college student with a chronic illness is in a position to leave home. If you’re considering studying abroad, your first phone call should be to your doctor. They will need to determine if they can provide long-distance medical oversight, if the treatments you need will be available in other countries, and if you’re in good enough condition to take the chance of being away. Listen carefully to their advice and do not go unless they give you the green light. 

When it comes to chronic health conditions, your situation is uniquely yours! You might be approached by acquaintances who have a cousin or brother-in-law or dog trainer with a horror story about how they tried living abroad with a certain illness and rushed back in tears on an emergency flight. Whatever that story may be, it’s not an example for everyone. Your decision to go or stay needs to be made with the medical professionals who care for you and know you best.

When speaking with a doctor, keep in mind “abroad” is quite a general term. If you are in a bit of a precarious health condition, you might be able to live in a country with a familiar language and an established and well-developed healthcare system, but not spend a semester in the Ugandan countryside. Be sure to tell your doctor what kind of program you are considering so that they’ll be able to give you an informed response to your questions. This means doing your research beforehand; compare programs, read reviews, and form a shortlist of potential programs before you even approach your doctor. 

close up, white lab coat with stethoscope

Go through all the necessary steps with your physician to ensure have the best time studying abroad with your chronic condition.

Finding appropriate medical professionals abroad

If you’re a college student with a chronic illness that has extra health needs, you’ll want to start researching and planning well in advance so that you can avoid any unforeseen surprises. Ask your doctor if they have any colleagues or connections who practice near where you’ll be living, or if they can connect you to people who might. For some practices, there may be a professional database that they have access to. If these methods are unfruitful, speak with your program coordinators to find out about local qualified professionals.

If you don’t already have experience looking for practices that will suit your needs, find out the experiences and qualifications a doctor will need to have in order to provide you with adequate care. This will make the process easier in case someone from your program needs to do research on your behalf.

[Get matched with a program that fits all your needs]

Getting medical equipment/medications through customs 

Under advice from the customs website, I once brought a doctor’s note in order to bring narcolepsy medication into Singapore. I didn’t end up needing it, but it was worthwhile to have the paperwork in case anything went wrong. This is a good strategy before you study abroad with a chronic illness. Check online to see if there are any restrictions on bringing your medicines and medical equipment into certain countries, and submit a personal inquiry if there are any ambiguities. You do not want to have anything confiscated! 

Sectioned pill containers are fantastic for organization and terrible for customs checks. Keep all medicines in labeled pharmacy bottles with your legal name printed on them. Don’t crush pills or mix different kinds of pills within a labeled container.

Avoid sending medications in the mail if you can help it. Mail can be heavily screened and you won’t be immediately available to answer pertinent questions about what’s in the package. If you do need to have medication or equipment shipped to you, make sure it’s labeled, follows all regulations, and is shipped with some cushion time in case it is intercepted or needs to be resent. 

two trekkers walking across path in the sunlight

Know your own limits, but don’t miss out on a great opportunity to study abroad.

Learning about new medical systems and insurance schemes

It’s always a good idea to buy an insurance package when spending an extended amount of time abroad, but if you have more needs than average you’ll want to double and triple check the fine print. Will you have access to coverage at nearby clinics, or the doctors you need to see? What’s the protocol in emergency situations? Are your prescriptions covered in your plan? If you aren’t receiving a comfortable amount of coverage, consider purchasing supplemental insurance. Otherwise, potential out-of-pocket costs should be considered when assessing the financial feasibility of living abroad.

As a general policy, when you study abroad with a chronic illness, try to bring all of your medicines and equipment on the trip abroad so that you don’t have to rely on an unfamiliar system. You can usually get a vacation override through your domestic insurance in order to have long-term supplies filled at a local pharmacy. 

[Can I Volunteer Abroad with my Chronic Condition?]

Communicating with your study abroad program provider about your health condition

On a trip to South Africa, one local informed me that if you get sick in the country, it’s more convenient to head straight to the cemetery than to a public hospital. That wasn’t something I would have figured out intuitively, but locals have perspective on the national healthcare system that won’t necessarily be spelled out online. It can be quite helpful to have a frank conversation with the program staff in-country who are familiar with the locale. 

fresh veggies on display at the market

If you have any dietary restrictions, talk it out with your program provider.

There’s a common fear that alerting a program in advance will set off unnecessary alarms about your ability to participate. However, the staff can act as your advocates on the ground, and you’ll need to foster an honest relationship with them to deal with your health once you leave home.They’re called in-country support for a reason. They’re there to support you! Be forward about your level of functionality and make sure to emphasize that your doctor has given you the all-clear to live abroad. Let them know what you’ll need, and what the consequences of not having your needs met will be.

Program staff can also inform you of details that are difficult to research. For instance, if you have special dietary needs, they can help you to understand if you’ll be able to acquire special food while in-country or if there are some foods you might want to bring from home.

Your program is your partner in supporting students’ with chronic illness health during their time there, but they cannot and should not be relied upon to support you single-handedly. Let them know that you’re aware of that. Your maturity and responsibility will put them at ease, and your preparatory research will make you better equipped to manage your condition once you relocate. 

[Managing your symptoms abroad]

Other general research to do before going 

Before you study abroad with a chronic illness, make a list for yourself of important environmental factors that help you stay well and start planning to make sure that those are accommodated while abroad. Do you need a special place to keep equipment? Access to a refrigerator for medications? A nearby place to buy special food? These are all things you can bring up and plan for with your program or host family.

supplements display at a pharmacy

If you need specific supplements and prescriptions, you’ll need to do some extra legwork to get that sorted before you study abroad.

There you have it! Top chronic illnesses and how to travel with them

At the end of the day, studying abroad with a chronic illness is a little bit different, but that shouldn’t stop you from having a coveted new experience. Plan a little more, take the time to cover all your bases, and then embrace your situation and enjoy the ride. You might not be the kind of person who can send a deposit to a program and quickly set off with only a suitcase and dictionary in hand, but you are someone who can immerse themselves in all the thrills of learning and exploring a new country and culture. 

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Health & Chronic Illness Abroad