South Korea’s Health

While waiting, and in an effort to understand Korea more we thought we would profile South Korea’s health and safety. Both for us and for concerned family members (the holiday season is obviously bringing up more questions about these things).

EDIT: One has been quick to jump down our throats and say we are paranoid and hypochondriacs for posting this. We will note here that there isn’t anything on this list that cannot be found on any major government website of travel advisories. (Germany – Canada – UK – America – Australia)

Drinking Water

Keep in mind even the US’s drinking water is full of crazy, crazy things. In general, South Korea’s water is probably no different than ours. But here’s what some think:

Frommer’s says “Drinking tap water in South Korea is not recommended
On the Go Tours: “Tap water is safe to drink in South Korea although it may be best to avoid this when staying for short periods”

An actually decent debate on Wagook.org concludes that

  • The water is safe
  • But the metals that can leech into it are not
  • Many people boil their water first
  • But this will not remove the metals and could even make them absorb better
  • A britta pitcher or bottled water is probably best but it’s definitely safe to cook with
  • It’s best to have it tested or look into the individual drinking water of your house/city after you get there

Consider Vaccinations

These are NOT  necessary AT ALL to get visas. But just like you had to get childhood shots growing up in your home country to be healthy,  you probably should be vaccinated before traveling.

That said, it’s probably not necessary to get any vaccinations, many people don’t do their research or don’t care and spend 2 or more years in Korea without ever getting effected.

In general, it’s a good idea to keep up on your vaccinations particularly Tetnus and Polio. This would be the case even if you’re going to Germany. Keep in mind, too, if you will be traveling anywhere outside of South Korea as some nearby destinations have a higher (or real) risk of some of these.

We did an in depth profile of how easy it is to get vaccinations (in your home country vs in Korea)

Hepatitis A 

How can you get it: Technically, contaminated food (think street food) and water (see above). And in theory you can even get this from touching the hands of a contaminated person.

What is it: Liver disease. Flu like symptoms. Symptoms last 1-6 months or never. Usually no lasting liver damage although it’s possible.

Vaccination: Varies. There is a 2 part shot, one gives you 18 months of protection, the second one gives you lifetime protection. (source)

Typhoid

How can you get it: Contaminated food and water

What is it: A disease. Symptoms include: rashes, fevers, stomach pain/problems, sometimes internal bleeding 

Vaccination: Shot or pills (source)

Japanese Encephalitis

How can you get it: Mosquito bites, rural areas of South Korea are at risk usually between May/June and October. Here’s a map of where it can be found.

What is it: Confusion, headache, stomach ache/vomiting. Ultimately can lead to swelling of the brain, coma, and death.

Vaccination: Your doctor will recommend when to get this. This may be best to be vaccinated against after arrival.

Malaria (!?)

How can you get it: Mosquito bites.

North Korea has still not eradicated malaria so northern parts of South Korea (northern Gyonggi do, Incheon and Ganwon, as well as the DMZ). Usually only from March-September. (source)

What is it: Disease – can take a week, a month or even a year for symptoms to show. High fevers, shaking chills, flu like symptoms. Can cause death.

Vaccination:  None. Oral prescriptions can be given. These almost always have to be taken before, during and after your trip.

If you know you’re going to be traveling/living/camping in the uppermost northern provinces between March-September you can consider if you want to get malaria medication. Otherwise, just use bug spray like you usually would camping or hanging out outside. (source)

This site doesn’t even think the medication is even necessary (and the WHO suggests the risk has gone down significantly)

Malaria precautions are essential throughout the year mainly in northern areas of Gangwon Do and Kyunggi Do Provinces and Incheon City, antimalarial tablets not usually required. (source)

Yellow Dust – 황사

What is it: Mongolian sand kicked up by high springtime winds. It  can go as far as the United Sates.

Lately it has happened occasionally in the winter but usually it happens from March-May.

It can carry some pretty bad things in it including asbestos, heavy metals, herbicides, phthalates, viruses, bacterium, and other carcinogens.

Usually however, it can cause sore throats, asthma and skin irritation. It can stain clothes and will probably be all over everything (cars, streets). (source)

Soil can be degraded, coral reefs damaged and fish can be contaminated by the heavy metals.

The Korean Meteorological Society tracks it and will issue advisories and/or warnings. Usually not to exercise heavily outdoors or to stay indoors. Particularly for the elderly and young or those who already have health concerns.

Prevention: Follow advisories. Masks can also be worn if you want.

Other Health Concerns

Pollution

South Korean cities can have high pollution levels which can cause health problems. The risk is probably no more than hanging out in any other large city in the world although China certainly isn’t helping.

Nothing you can do about pollution inhalation, in fact, trying to prevent it may actually make it worse. For severe asthmatics, just keep an eye on things.

Smoking

Many people smoke, according to the WHO 44% of men smoke and 7% of females. This obviously increases the risk of second hand smoke. The government is currently cracking down on where smoking can occur to prevent this. (source).

Drinking

South Korea has a huge rate of drinking, particularly social drinking. This is on this list only because most teachers will participate in staff dinners where drinking is almost expected, that, and the WHO actually considers it a concern. If it becomes too much it’s polite to refuse particularly if you are “allergic”

Health Care

By now the inner hypochondriac in you is screaming, particularly against that yellow dust stuff. Fear not, the average life expectancy in Korea is around 81 years. So they’re all doing fine right in the thick of it. AKA No one ever gets sick from any of it. Travelers who maybe aren’t familiar with climate can be more at risk because they weren’t raised there but it’s rare. As usual, you have a higher rate of being injured or killed living your normal life at home.

It’s worth briefly mentioning Korea’s healthcare so we’re not all booking tickets home the second we get coughs (that was a joke, although some Midnight Runners have the dumbest reasons for leaving).

Here’s a Korean explaining how the health care system works in some detail.

In short: its cheap, safe and quick.

You can walk into an office, you won’t have to wait that long and usually get a full blown examination. Every blog we’ve ever read of expats in Korea they all end up completely blown away by how amazing and cheap it is.

Americans are usually quick to judge other countries health care (we’ll ignore the extreme irony of this). Otherwise intelligent family members have been very quick to jump on South Korea (which they know nothing about) and tell us to do all our doctors, dentists and eye doctors before we leave because they believe Korea will be unsafe, the doctors untrained and the equipment dirty. False. The only thing we anticipate is the occasional language barrier, which, even then, may not exist. The doctors are obviously some of the highest trained people – they certainly can speak English.

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