Germ-laden airports, upended sleep patterns and unfamiliar local bugs are just a few of the health risks travellers face when seeing the world. But sometimes these travel maladies can yield a good story – in the problem solving of travelling companions, the mysterious (and miraculous) local remedies, or the assistance offered by total strangers.

We asked our travel editors and writers to tell us their tales of the times they came home with more souvenirs than they bargained for.

Features - Hand-Drawn Carts Used for Garbage Collection in Venice
The lovely dustmen of Venice will apparently pick up more than rubbish © JannHuizenga / Getty

Swept up in Venice

My friend picked up a nasty bug bite somewhere along the way during a summer spent traversing Europe by train. By the time we got to beautiful Venice, her whole thigh was blotchy, hard and swollen.

Speaking no Italian between us apart from 'please' and 'thanks', we ventured out to find help. We soon met a lovely dustman, who, upon seeing my friend dragging her leg behind her, taught us the Italian for 'emergency room' while bringing us to the edge of his territory. Once we reached a certain cobbled alley, he gave a whistle and another man appeared pushing a cart with various brushes and shovels sticking out of it. We were then promptly passed along by the dustmen of Venice repeating 'pronto soccorso', nodding and smiling until we came to the most grand, marble-floored hospital I'd ever seen.

Neither the doctor nor the hospital staff spoke any English, but we all had a bit of French and somehow managed to hobble through the experience with that.

Niamh O'Brien is Lonely Planet’s Multi-Regional Destination Editor. Follow Niamh on Instagram @niamhtroody

Features - Bogoyavlenskaya church in Orel, Russia in winter
Imagine taking in sights like Oryol’s Epiphany Church after a tooth drilling © AlexeyBorodin / Getty

A Russian root canal

A friend in St Petersburg once told me that Russia was a good place to have dental work done. I politely nodded, thinking this imparted wisdom would never prove useful to me. And yet there I was, groaning in the railway carriage en route to Smolensk, with a toothache that felt like a constant jackhammer in my jaw.

I was delighted that the staff at the dentist’s office in Smolensk spoke some English, then devastated when they could not locate the source of the pain. They prescribed some heavy painkillers and I trudged off miserably to continue my work around the city. A few days later, in the lovely Russian city of Oryol, I sought out my second dentist. Practically in tears, and with my meager Russian, I begged her for help.

With my St Petersburg friend Sascha translating over the phone, the diagnosis was that I needed a root canal, which would be done in two stages over the course of a day. In between procedures, the dentist's husband graciously volunteered to chauffer me around town so I could finish my research. Sascha was right: I couldn't have asked for better all-round treatment.

Simon Richmond has covered Russia, the USA, Japan, South Africa, Malaysia, Myanmar and Iran for Lonely Planet. Follow Simon on Instagram @simonrichmond

Features - Rice steamed with chicken soup (hainanese chicken rice) for sale at Thai street food market.
Josh and his partner survived on takeout Hainanese chicken rice during their quarantine in Singapore © PongMoji / Getty

Flu stricken in Singapore

Stephanie and I had big plans for Singapore, the last leg of our epic, three-week Asia Pacific vacation. I was looking forward to introducing my partner to the bright lights, excellent cuisine and well-ordered pleasures of the Lion City – but the horrible flu we picked up in Brisbane had other plans.

Immediately upon arrival we traded our Hawker Centre crawl for a trip to the medical clinic across from our hotel in Katong, where the doctor prescribed a series of heavy antibiotics, medicated eye drops for conjunctivitis and at least 48 hours of bed rest before boarding our next flight – in exactly two days. ‘You run the risk of damaging your eardrums by flying while congested’, the doctor cautioned.

We headed straight from the clinic to the plush room I’d booked at the Grand Mercure, where we spent the rest of our trip swallowing pills and applying medicated eye drops, me heading out sporadically for Hainanese chicken rice while Stephanie sought advice on the internet. All queries confirmed the consensus that chewing gum during a flight can help reduce ear pressure. Problem solved: we’d pick up a few packs of gum at the airport.

Alas, the sale of chewing gum is prohibited in Singapore. The leathery dried guava slices were a pale substitute.

Joshua Samuel Brown has covered Singapore, Taiwan, Belize and Malaysia for Lonely Planet. Follow Joshua’s tweets @josambro

Features - Mother and son
Unwilling to miss a moment in Hong Kong with her kids, Penny took matters into her own hands © Photo and Co / Getty

Big toe remedy, Hong Kong-style

My two children and I had been snorkeling around Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands for a week, the clear waters and swarms of fish lulling us into holiday bliss. Then, on the final night while preparing for our next leg of the journey, I carelessly dropped my laptop like a guillotine onto the big toe of my right foot. To say it hurt more than labour is no exaggeration.

The children nursed me with pillows and ice as my toe turned increasingly blue, the pressure behind the nail mounting. The following day, our itinerary limped us to Hong Kong. On arrival the hotel doctor insisted I go to an outpatient clinic. I questioned his authority, knowing that hospital queues would cut into precious time exploring one of my favourite cities.

Instead I turned the situation into an adventure of sorts, by hauling the kids around in the stifling heat for some rudimentary operation equipment. From a hardware stall in the street market, we bought a packet of nails. From a convenience store, we bought a cigarette lighter. From the hotel mini bar, I retrieved a small bottle of vodka for use as antiseptic. Then I heated the nail and slowly skewered a hole into my throbbing, black-and-blue toenail. My seven-year-old peeked around the corner of the bed, unable to look, while my three-year-old relished seeing the blood slowly bubbling up through the small hole and the evident relief on my face. He lovingly applied a bandage and within the hour we were back on our feet exploring the city.

Penny Watson has covered Australia for Lonely Planet and has contributed to books including World’s Best Spicy Food and Happy: Secrets in Happiness from Cultures of the World. Follow Penny on Instagram @watson_penny

Features - fresh kimchi
A staple of Korean culture and cuisine, kimchi is said to offer many health benefits © Richard Ernest Yap / Getty

The curative power of kimchi

When I woke to stabbing stomach pains one morning in small-town South Korea, I knew something was awry. My boss at the language academy took me to see the doctor at the only clinic in town. Local farmers awaiting checkups while visiting for market day buzzed at the sight of the English teacher doubled over in pain. My outlook grew grimmer with each wave of cramps.

It darkened more when the clinic’s resident, the chief doctor’s nephew, barged into the waiting room, holding X-rays and a Korean-to-English dictionary. He and my boss flipped the pages back and forth, talking rapidly, before my boss turned to me saying, ‘You need a cut’, drawing his finger along his side. He handed me the dictionary, poking at the word ‘appendix’.

Reactions swirled through my mind. Are they going to operate on me here? Should I go to Seoul? Should I go home?? Suddenly, in came the chief doctor, waving more X-rays and barking commands. He grabbed the dictionary, flipped some pages and handed it back to me, pointing at a new word: ‘constipation’. ‘Too much rice,’ he said to me. ‘Eat more kimchi’. That was the day I realized why my students said ‘kimchi is good for health’.

Jay Cooke has covered California and the American West for Lonely Planet. Follow Jay’s tweets @jaycooke

Lonely Planet has produced this article for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

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