What To Do In A Medical Emergency Abroad

Posted on: 26 March 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Dr Samy Massoud of The Medical Screening Company answers questions and gives essential advice on surviving a medical emergency abroad.


Dr Massoud answers questions and gives advice on what you should do in a medical emergency abroad.  This advice is aimed specifically at the mature traveller.

Are there any preparations or precautions I can take before I travel?

Visit your GP (several weeks before travel) for:

  • Vaccinations & Anti-Malaria advice (if required)
  • Medical supplies (extra-supply of regular medications)
  • Letter for customs (to justify medical supplies, equipments e.g. syringes)
  • Health advice
  • Medical check-up (fitness to travel, and specific health requirements)

It is a common practice for medical assistance companies to contact your GP in the case of a medical emergency.  Your GP would be asked to confirm your past medical history, to confirm that you were fit to fly and did so with GP consent and not against advice.  This would happen before the cost of treatment is agreed for medical assistance.


  • An EHIC Card (from the Post Office, or via telephone and internet) if travelling to the EU
  • Adequate travel insurance cover (you must declare your medical condition and status). It is strongly advised that you take an adequate travel insurance policy that fully covers pre-existing medical conditions and includes hospital admission cover and repatriation. In fact, travel insurance is very important even for travelling to counties that offer reciprocal arrangements. The traveller has to declare their medical status when obtaining insurance, as the insurance company may refuse cover when assistance is required, if the condition was not declared before the issuing of the policy. 
  • Travel first aid kit/medical kit 
  • Medical ID card, necklace, bracelet or similar e.g. MedicAlert and Medi-Tag


  • Relevant support organizations e.g. BDA (for the diabetic traveller) for specific destination advice and the name of equivalent medications 
  • Airline for special diet requirements

Take With You:

  • Testing/ monitoring kits (e.g. for blood sugar measurements)
  • A written note with your personal details

This information is essential in case of emergency. This information should be completed before travelling and a copy kept in your handbag/wallet, in your hotel room and with your companion who should be aware of your medical condition.

Should I travel with first aid supplies?  Surely everything will be available at my destination?

Availability of medications and first aid supply abroad depends on your holiday location. In some countries you are able to buy over the counter supplies similar to the UK and even more eg. in some countries you can even buy antibiotics directly from the chemist, whilst in other countries medical supplies are in very short supply and may not be subject to the same safety regulations and quality controls.

First aid kits are mostly made up of over the counter (OTC) medications and contents and should be assembled based on your needs.

Is there anything I should do as soon as I arrive?

Adjust your medication time according to your new time zone. The need to establish the time zones is important, as the times of medications and diet may need to be altered accordingly.

For example, the diabetic traveller who is on Insulin: if the time zone change is less than 4 hours, there is no need for major changes, otherwise increase or decrease 2-4 % the daily dose of insulin for each hour of time shift, in general:

  • Travelling east to west- days are longer, therefore take an extra meal + extra insulin or tablet to cover
  • Travelling west to east - days are shorter, therefore reduce carbohydrate intake insulin cover or miss one dose of oral tablets

It is wise to stick to the time operating from your home airport on long-haul journeys until arrival then change and adjust. Seek your GP’s advice for necessary adjustment advice.


  • Avoid extreme weather conditions and temperature
  • High temperatures can damage certain medications e.g. insulin
  • Blood glucose strips may read high in the hot weather and low in the cold weather
  • Use sun screen
  • Avoid mosquito/ insect bites


  • Eat more carbohydrates before and after exercises
  • Do not walk barefoot

Food & Drink:

  • Adjust food intake
  • Drink enough fluids to avoid dehydration (non alcoholic drinks)
  • Limit alcohol intake as it causes dehydration

What is my first step if a medical emergency strikes in a foreign country? 

In case of an injury, illness or medical emergency seek medical attention from an appropriate accredited medical provider early. Declare your medical conditions and status to your carer and medical adviser. Prepare for potential medical problems, Diarrhoea and/or vomiting will cause dehydration and therefore take plenty of fluids

It is also useful to obtain the address of the British Consulate or Embassy, as they may be able to support as well as providing a list of the local English speaking doctors and will be aware of the local facilities. 

Is there a standard emergency number in Europe (the 999 equivalent)?

112 is the phone number to call emergency services throughout the EU, from fixed or mobile phones, free of charge. There is no need to look up and remember the emergency numbers for each EU country you are visiting. Just remember 112.

112 will not replace existing national emergency numbers. In most countries, it operates alongside the existing national numbers. However, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, have opted for 112 as the only emergency number.

Dial 112 in any emergency requiring an ambulance, the fire brigade or the police. Operators are increasingly able to answer 112 calls in more than one language.

Most GSM mobile phones have 112 and 911 as pre-programmed emergency numbers that are always available

  • 911      Emergency phone number in US and Canada.
  • 000      Emergency phone number in Australia.
  • 111      Emergency phone number in New Zealand.
  • 119      Emergency phone number in parts of East Asia.
  • 100      Emergency phone number in India and Israel.
  • 110      Emergency phone number in Iran.

Once my partner or I have been admitted to hospital, is there anything I need to be aware of or any standard questions I need to ask?

You must always check the type of facility, for example - state or private - and if the facility is a specialised centre and able to provide you with the required care. Details of your EHIC card, travel insurance and assistance company will be required and the hospital will confirm that costs and cover will be provided by your travel insurance or under EHIC cover.

Personal and medical information is essential and necessary in a medical emergency and make your companion aware of your condition.

Are the names of prescription drugs the same in every country or will I need to know the name in a different language?

The traveller may not be able to get his/ her usual medications/ prescription abroad, which is why taking an extra supply of all other regular medication (double or triple the estimated requirements) will ensure availability and help with compliance. These should be carried in hand luggage.  It is also useful to carry a record of your regular medication, dosages etc.

Is there anything else I need to know?

  • Maintain basic food hygiene to avoid GI related illness, diarrhoea and vomiting.
  • Use only bottled water and drinks and also takes water-sterilizing tablets
  • Walking barefoot can damage skin and cause infection and other complications
  • Avoid mosquito bites and sun burns for obvious reasons. Take mosquito/ insect repellent.
  • Avoid sunburns and use sunscreens and sunglasses
  • Alcoholic drinks are not rehydrating fluids; they cause dehydration. Therefore drink alcohol only in moderation

On return you should visit your GP to report illnesses while away or any other new medical condition or injury that has developed whilst away.  This is also the time for a check-up and to renew medical supplies if necessary. 

About The Author

Dr Massoud recently retired as an NHS Consultant (specialising in Accident and Emergency) and his career spans more than 35 years.  During this time he has travelled extensively, observing hospitals abroad and giving advice to travellers.

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