Sick: Dealing While Abroad

Last week I was hit with the double whammy of a bad head cold immediately followed by the stomach flu. Fun.


On the bright side, everything looks better after you’ve recovered from a cold.

And while I was stuck in bed, thoughts in a haze, I remembered that I’d been sick in Korea quite often. In fact…

I spent my first Christmas in Korea sick in bed with the stomach flu.

I threw up the morning of Christmas eve and missed the last day of school, which was also the day of the school festival.

I continued throwing up anything I ate, including medicine, which came in the form of light green liquid in a little pouch.

My second year in Korea, I had frequent stomach problems too, although those were mostly anxiety-induced.

I know a thing or two about being sick in Korea. And so why not talk about it?

Fulbright Health Insurance

Teaching in Korea through Fulbright, you have health insurance. Sort of. It was more of a reimbursement system that I never took advantage of.

If you could make it to Severance Hospital in Seoul, great, you’re covered. If not, you had to save your receipts and prescriptions, fill out a bunch of forms and wait quite a while to be reimbursed. Even then, there was a minimum copayment of something like $25 (don’t quote me on this), and I never went above that amount.

The good news is, health care in Korea is extremely cheap!

Healthcare in the ROK

Whenever I caught a cold, I found that people in Korea would tell me to go to the hospital. What?! I’d exclaim, usually internally, go to the hospital for a cold? How silly! But then I caught a more serious cold and my host mom took me to the biggest hospital in Gimhae.

The doctor examined me and told me things I already knew – duh, I know I have a cold. Then he prescribed some medicine. The whole visit was brief and it cost…

…7,000 won!

That’s less than $7, with the exchange rate.

I was shocked. My insurance back home would have required a minimum of $50 for a simple doctor’s visit, not including any tests or special procedures.

I was even more shocked when my host mom noted that it was expensive. With health insurance, she said, the visit would have cost only 2 or 3 dollars.

What gives, America?

Medicine in Korea

After paying my expensive health care costs, I went with my host mom to pick up my medication. It came in a simple paper packet and included five or six different pills I had to take with each meal.

Cue another what?! moment.

Each pill treated a different side effect, which I guess made sense.

Despite the medicine being intimidating it was still cheap, although I can no longer remember the price.

American medications come with a miniature pamphlet of fine print instructions and side effects and commentary. All the information I received on the Korean medicine fit onto one packet about the size of a half sheet of paper.

Although I’ve heard foreigners complain about the lack of information on medication, it seemed to me that all the basics were there: purpose, dosage, side effects, and warnings.

Later on, I did become more savvy and got my medicine directly from pharmacies.


I took a lot of pictures of my medicine, so I’d know what to get next time. This is a typical cold medicine and a sort of traditional health drink.

Hospital Communication

I’ve visited Korean hospitals for colds and stomach problems. But I’ve always gone with either a member of my Korean family or host family.

In most cases, I explained my symptoms to the doctor in my rudimentary Korean and it was enough to be understood. Sometimes the person accompanying me explained my symptoms again and answered additional questions from the doctor.

Once the doctor surprised both my host mom and me with a slew of medical English. We both listened amazed as he communicated with in perfect, although rather technical, English. I found myself having to listen a little more carefully in order to keep up with his jargon-filled way of speaking, but it was a bit of a relief – and a source of amusement to my host family and me later – to have the person in charge of my medical care understand.

Korean Ideas Around Sickness

Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same for some of my coworkers. It wasn’t the English department’s English ability that hindered the understanding between us, but a cultural difference.

When Americans get sick, they call in and get a sick day.

When Koreans get sick, they medicate and persevere.

That Christmas Eve when I had the stomach flu? When my host mom called my coteacher about me being ill (as I lay groaning on the coach), he initially said to come in for the morning and see how I felt. Later, he saw and dismissed me.

Another time I was at school with a strong cold. It was sixth or seventh period and I didn’t have any more classes to teach. I drifted off to sleep in my office chair, since napping in the teacher’s office is an acceptable practice, and kept nearly falling out of my chair.

My department chair finally came over and told me I could go home for the day – but quietly, so no one would know.

That same department chair once caught the stomach flu and didn’t eat for three days. She came to work as usual on each of those days.

All the Hospitality and Care

Despite what I view as unrealistic, unhealthy views on work culture and sickness, it was the times when I got sick when I became aware that the people around me really did care deeply for me.

During my second year, there was a period when I worked in an office where all my fellow teachers were my mother’s age or older. I ate really healthy that semester, and we never seemed to run out of fresh fruit and other snacks.

When I fell ill, they forbade me from drinking coffee or eating apples – which are a “cold” fruit and not good for people with colds (this article on traditional Chinese medicine explains the idea behind hot and cold foods).

When I went through a period of frequent nausea, a couple of coworkers took me out to a juk (rice porridge) restaurant, which is easy on the stomach and the go-to sick food in Korea. It’s like chicken noodle soup.


Actually, just kidding. Samgyetang is Korea’s version of chicken noodle soup. And it’s delicious, cold or no cold.

samgyetang_chicken soup.jpg

Being sick in Korea wasn’t so bad, and at times I felt more cared for than I did on my own in college.

So if you’re sick in Korea, I’d say:

  • Don’t shy away from a hospital visit.
  • Brush it off when someone tells you not to get sick or to take better care of yourself.
  • Do hang out with and accept any gifts of food from any ahjummas you know.
  • Be open to different types of medicine and different beliefs about sickness (but you don’t have to end up believing them yourself).

Pro-tip #1: You can go directly to the pharmacy to pick up cold meds like 화이투벤 or just explain to the pharmacist that you need 감기 약  (cold medicine).


The same cold medicine from earlier on the left, and cough drops on the right.

Pro-tip #2: Theraflu exists in Korea.


Here’s the proof. And a packet of pear extract and root I received from a coteacher.