If you’ve come down with a cold, flu, or stomach bug on vacation, you’re not alone. In one study, 20 percent of plane passengers reported respiratory symptoms within a week of flying. No one wants to get sick on a trip—or directly after one. Keep reading to learn how to prevent illnesses during and after your next vacation.
1. Get up to date on travel vaccines
It’s fun to learn about new cultures. It’s not so fun to come into contact with new diseases. Fortunately, vaccines are available to protect you from many illnesses. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website to find travel recommendations for your destination. Depending on where you’re going, you may need a yellow fever vaccine. It’s required for entry into many countries in Africa and South America. The CDC recommends certain other vaccines, including typhoid and Japanese encephalitis, for travel in other areas. If you’re planning an international trip, book an appointment with a travel health specialist a couple of months before you leave to make sure you’re protected.
2. Rest and get plenty of sleep
Long flights, time changes, and schedule disruptions can make it hard to stay on your sleep schedule. But adequate sleep is crucial to staying healthy. In one study, researchers tracked participants’ sleep with Fitbit-like devices and sleep diaries for one week and then exposed them to a cold virus. The participants who slept five to six hours a night were four times more likely to catch a cold than those who slept more.
To improve your sleep when you travel, expose yourself to bright sunshine in the morning, which will help your circadian rhythm sync with the local schedule. Get plenty of exercise during the day (which you can build into your itinerary in the form of walking or biking from point A to point B). You can also consider taking a melatonin supplement a half-hour before bedtime. In studies, it helps prevent and reduce jet lag.
Besides sleep, don’t forget to pencil in time for relaxing and resting during your trip. Permit yourself a daily nap if you desire. And if possible, take an extra day off to recover from your trip before you return to work.
3. Stay hydrated
You’re not imagining that the air on planes feels dry. The relative humidity on planes averages around 10 to 20 percent. For comparison, the relative humidity in the Sahara Desert is 25 percent, and the humidity in your home is probably between 30 and 45 percent. To compound the problem, most travelers drink fewer fluids when they’re airborne. Skip coffee and alcohol, which are diuretics, and drink plenty of water on your next flight. Hydration will help keep your digestion on track and your nasal passages moist, which may help you stay healthy. Dry nasal passages are more susceptible to viruses. If you’ll be on a long flight, consider bringing along a saline nasal spray and use it as directed on the bottle. Don’t forget to keep up your water intake once you arrive at your destination. Pack a water filter if you’re heading somewhere with a water advisory.
4. Keep your hands clean
You may have heard that the air in an airplane cabin is 100 percent recirculated, but that’s a myth. Airplane ventilation systems draw air from outside then filter and continually replace it. Of course, you can still catch a bug on the plane. If you’re sitting within one or two rows of a sick airline passenger, you have about a 3 percent chance of getting sick. If you’re sitting next to a sick person, your odds jump to 80 percent.
You’re more likely to pick up a virus on your hands and transfer it to your nose or mouth than to breathe it in. To lower your risk, be careful about what you touch, keep your hands away from your face, and wash your hands as frequently as possible.
The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) allows disinfectant wipes on airplanes, so you can bring some along if you wish. But use them correctly or they won’t work. The solution in wipes needs to be visibly wet on surfaces for at least four minutes, and you must use a separate wipe for every area. (If you wipe everything down quickly as most people do, you’ll only spread germs around.) Also, note that the harsh chemicals in disinfectant wipes can irritate lungs and skin, and the packaging instructs users to wash their hands after using them.
5. Stay active
You may be looking forward to a vacation from your exercise routine, but it’s a good idea to stay active on your trip. Physical activity lowers stress and increases your immunity to certain diseases. Even short-term bursts of activity (or breaks from it) may impact your immune function. In one study, when a group of mice exercised for three weeks, their immune systems were more efficient when responding to a pneumonia virus than mice who didn’t exercise during the same period. Long-term studies suggest the same may be true for humans. People randomly assigned to exercise got 15 percent fewer colds in one study than those who didn’t exercise. And at least three other randomized studies suggest people get sick less often when they exercise nearly every day.
Follow these tips to feel your best on your next vacation, and you’ll bring home souvenirs and memories instead of germs and bugs. And don’t forget to enjoy yourself! Laughter decreases stress hormones, lowers blood pressure, and enhances immune activity. Plus, it’s the most fun way to prevent illness.
by Abby Quillen
Abby Quillen writes about sustainability, green living, health, business, and other topics. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, YES! Magazine, and dozens of other publications. She lives in Eugene, Oregon with her family. Visit her at abbyquillen.com.