Getting Sick in Japan

You may have noticed a distinct lack of wisps and articles this last week on the website. This is mainly due to the fact that I fell ill with influenza at the beginning of last week, and it kept me out of the game for 7 days straight! Since it was my first time getting majorly sick in Japan, I thought I’d write about the event as an apology for not putting up anything new. Hopefully my experience can give you some insight to the good, bad, and ugly sides of getting sick as an expat in a foreign country!

The Good

The moment I wasn’t feeling well at work I had the full support of my coworkers. They saw that I wasn’t feeling so grand and instantly were asking me if I wanted to go home, take some time off, if I needed someone call a nearby hospital or clinic to see if they had availablilty, and more.

The comradery around an ill coworker in Japan is something I hadn’t seen in the states, mainly because I’ve never had a serious illness at work before and because being sick in America is just something that you suck up and try to move past (insert a joke or two about the insane prices of health care in America compared to other countries). In Japan, they want the infected person out of the office as quickly as possible so that they 1) don’t infect anyone else, and 2) recover and return to work ASAP.

I felt so appreciated by how much everyone cared, and it really made me glad to know that I wasn’t just the token foreigner in my company that was viewed as a novelty and not part of the team. If you ever want to know how your coworkers feel about you, just get sick! Kidding, of course, but it really is a great way to feel appreciated and connected to your work!

Spoiler alert, but the trip to the clinic, checkup, perscription, and literal mountain of medication only set me back ¥4,000, or around $40USD. If any of you know anything about the states, you’ll know that only paying $40 to see a doctor and get medication is unbelievable! I’ve never been more thankful to have national health care than I was last week!

The Bad

Getting to the clinic while sick was troublesome, as driving while coughing, wheezing, and just feeling overall awful wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Once I reached the closest clinic, I was overwhelmed with the language barrier – I’ve never studied how to say things like, “I only had a minor headache and throat pain yesterday, but after a spiking fever last night I knew it was serious!”, or even common symptoms like ‘nausea’, or ‘high fever’.

It was nerve wrecking and annoying to play charades with medical professionals, as I was worried that I would easily be misdiagnosed or misunderstood and given the wrong medicine. Thankfully for my case (and most influenza cases), the nurse simply stuffed a lengthy swab down my nose and into my throat to collect phlegm, tested it with a small machine, and deduced I had indeed caught the flu. Symptoms or not, they could easily tell what was wrong with me and go about fixing it, though I was worried, scared, and confused the majority of the time.

The Ugly

Being given several small baggies full of different pills, granules, and other medicine is already a task I’m not happy to deal with in my native language, but my stress and worries were sent skyhigh by the fact that I couldn’t read any of the ingredients or instructions that came with the medicine. I’ve taken painkillers and other pills while in Japan, and luckily know how to read how much of a medication per day, but I didn’t want to be wrong about anything with my fragile health on the line.

I didn’t know what side effects the medication I was given came with, what to watch out for, what I couldn’t take (like ibuprofen, for example) while I was taking such pills, and other information I’m used to getting from a doctor. The lack of information meant sitting down in my room with google translate primed on my phone and hoping that the translations were correct!

After speaking with another expat who caught the same strain of flu, I was shocked and angry to learn that my stomach aches and pains the first day I started taking my medicine was actually due to one of the pills I took that was – unbeknownst to me – optional! The expat I spoke to talked about how their doctor suggested the same pill, but said the side effects are rough and that there are other options available that are less harsh on the body. If only I could have communicated better with my doctor I might have saved myself unwanted pain and misery!

Though the pills were all supposed to treat different symptoms from the flu, I didn’t know which ones I could stop taking if certain symptoms got better while others remained the same or got worse. I had a splitting headache the second day I showed symptoms, but had absolutely no clue if I could take aspirin, ibuprofen, or anything else to help my throbbing cranium. On top of worrying about being sick and not getting better, I was constantly worrying about what I was putting into my body and what the effects of the medicine would be.

Worst of all, I paid in advance for my medicine only to be handed several packets of ‘Chinese Herbal Medicine’ granules along with the other pills and capsules… I’m not a firm believer in such medicines, and would rather have not put my faith in such things, but was given no choice in the matter because of the language barrier.


Spending five days locked away from the rest of the world nearly drove me mad, but at least I got to catch up on a few different series I like to watch on Netflix. I generally never take time off of work unless absolutely necessary, and during the week when I wasn’t in pain or so tired and drowsy I couldn’t keep my eyes open I thoroughly enjoyed having more free time to work on my projects and get ahead on some things.

One thing’s for certain: I’m definitely going to up my studies on Japanese health phrases in the near future…

What are your experiences with being sick in a foreign country? Did you have any issues, or were you pleasantly surprised? Let us know in the comments below so we know what to watch out for!

Happy reading, writing, working, and living!

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