Staying Healthy While Traveling
It’s finally time to take that important business trip or long-anticipated vacation. You’ve packed the essentials, planned your itinerary, and made your travel arrangements. But are you completely prepared? Whether you are traveling domestically or internationally, don’t forget to plan for your health, too.
5 Tips for Everyday Disease Prevention
Before the first leg of your journey begins, it is best to review disease prevention habits and follow them prior to, as well as throughout, your trip. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests the following habits to prevent the spread of disease:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
How Else Can I Prepare?
You may also consider boosting your immune system prior to your departure. The right vitamins, supplements, or probiotics may help you ward off illness. Just make sure to check with your doctor before starting a new regimen. Your doctor can also provide travel health advice specific to you if you have a weakened immune system.
Pack a small emergency kit that includes medicines, wipes, and hand sanitizer. Depending on where you travel to, these items may not be readily available.
Hidden Dangers in the Airport Security Line
To stay healthy while traveling through the airport, always wash your hands after going through security.
Fliers must remove their shoes to be X-rayed in the security line. “Make sure you wear socks,” says Michael Zimring, MD, director of the Center for Wilderness and Travel Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “If your feet are sweaty, you can get a bacterial or fungal infection,” Zimring says. “The floor is dirty and people are walking all over it. Who knows what is on there?”
Some of the most contaminated surfaces in the airport is the plastic bins used for pushing shoes and carry-on items through screening machines, according to a 2018 study published in BMC Infectious Diseases. The study found a variety of viruses in half of the samples tested at Helsinki Airport in Finland.
“Plastic security screening trays appear commonly contaminated,” researchers wrote. “Each security tray is rapidly recycled and potentially touched by several hundred passengers per day … trays are non-porous and virus survival is known to be prolonged.”
Protecting Yourself on a Plane
The enclosed environment of an airplane may be out of your control, but there are still steps you can take to reduce your chance of interacting with contagions.
To stay healthy on a flight, Mark Gendreau, MD, of Lahey Medical Center offers these two tips:
- Sanitize your hands before you eat or drink and then use sanitizer after you wash your hands in the airplane’s bathroom. Water on planes has a dirty record. In fact, you may want to skip washing your hands altogether and just stick to sanitizer. If you are concerned about an airline’s water, you should also skip the coffee or tea and ask for bottled drinks with no ice.
- Blow away airborne microbes: To keep from catching a pathogen in the plane’s recycled air, use the vent above your head. Set the ventilation at low or medium. Then position it so you can draw an imaginary line of current right in front of your head. When you put your hands on your lap, you should feel the current. Then if something infectious is floating in your personal space, that air from the vent will create enough current to knock it away.
Booking a window seat and staying put throughout your flight is also beneficial. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2018, movements of passengers and crew, as well as indirect contact via fomites may facilitate disease transmission. While the primary risk factor is sitting within two rows of an infectious passenger, the study found that 40 percent of transmission occurred outside of the two-row zone, suggesting that movement may be an important factor in disease transmission.
Get the COVID-19 Facts
Airborne viral infections, such as influenza and COVID-19 (the disease caused by the coronavirus), are of great concern when traveling right now. Currently, the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China, Iran, South Korea, and Italy (this does not include Hong Kong, Macau, or the island of Taiwan). When traveling elsewhere, take precautions to reduce your chance of becoming ill.
When questioned about how concerned people should be about coronavirus, American Medical Association (AMA) member Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, an advocate for public education on this issue, said, “Right now, people have no need to panic. It’s just about being smart and prepared.”
Know When to Wear a Face Mask in Public Places
The CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19. Face masks are recommended only for those who show symptoms of illness to help prevent the spread of disease to others and for healthcare workers and people who take care of someone in close settings (for example, at home or in a healthcare facility).
Wipe Down Your Hotel Room
Hotel rooms can be rife with health concerns no matter what their price or star rating. While it may be reasonable to assume that bathroom surfaces have been cleaned, they can still be a haven for viruses and bacteria. And what about the TV remote and telephone? Their surfaces rarely, if ever, get wiped down and can support disease like norovirus (a type of virus that causes gastroenteritis, with vomiting and diarrhea).
Viruses lurking on surfaces and poor air quality from an air conditioner that has seen better days can cause or spread disease. So, what can you do? You can pack antibacterial wipes to quickly disinfect most of these surfaces. Or pack a spray to disinfect non-flat surfaces such as remotes. If you suspect your air conditioner is making you sick, ask to move to a room with a newer model.
And don’t forget a good night’s sleep — when you’re tired or jet lagged, your body isn’t as capable of fighting off bacteria and viruses that enter your body, leaving you more prone to getting sick.
What Should I Do if I Get Sick While Traveling?
If the worst should happen and you do fall ill when traveling, you may not have the option of returning home immediately, especially if you are traveling for work. The following tips will help you keep going and (hopefully!) recover faster:
- Stay hydrated; skip the cocktails and stick with plain old water (bottled, of course), juice, or tea. Consuming alcohol will suppress your immune system, making it harder to recover.
- Do not overexert yourself; rest is essential when healing the body.
- Take a long hot shower or bath to clear your sinuses and promote relaxation.
- Eat bland foods that are gentle on the stomach and avoid dairy.
- If your symptoms worsen, call the hotel doctor if one is available. Or if you feel your symptoms are severe, go to urgent care or the emergency room. Medicines should be prescribed early on if you suspect you have the flu.
Whether you are in the airport, on a plane, in a hotel room, or frequenting public spaces during your travels, there is always a risk of contact with contagions. Take precautions on all fronts and enjoy a healthy, happy trip.