Even the most health-conscious people tend to slack off a little bit while on vacation. Getting a full eight hours of sleep seems less important when hiking through a national park, and we all tend to eat more junk food on road trips. When you combine these habits with germs picked up from planes and hotels, it’s no wonder so many people fall ill during trips. We talked with two doctors to figure out how to stay healthy while traveling so that you can enjoy some R&R without a stuffy nose or sore throat.
Know your body and plan ahead
When traveling, some people are more prone to illness than others. Dr. Kirsten D. Lin, owner of Family Matters Direct Primary Care in Allison Park, Pennsylvania, said, for example, that those with chronic diseases have weaker immune systems, which can lead to an increased risk of falling ill while traveling. “But a generally healthy traveler would not have this risk unless they go to a country with specific considerations, such as malaria or other tropical diseases, or a developing country without clean water or a sewage system,” she explained.
Additionally, Dr. Linda Prine, director of women’s health at the Institute for Family Health, said stress levels also affect your immune system. “If you’re traveling for work or for a sad event like a funeral, the stress can lower your resistance to infections. If you’re traveling for a happy occasion or for vacation — and if you’re comfortable with traveling and not stressed by it — there’s a low risk of illness,” she said.
Scan the plane, train, or bus
There’s nothing worse than sitting next to a chronic cougher on a plane, train, or bus, and Dr. Prine said the exposure can make it hard to stay healthy while traveling. One study actually found that if you sit across the aisle from a sick person, you’re 80% likely to catch whatever they have. Yikes!
“Try not to sit next to people who are coughing and sniffling,” she said. “You should especially steer clear of sick children, who may not always cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze.” If you must sit next to a sick person, wash your hands often and use hand sanitizer if you don’t have easy access to a sink.
One of the easiest ways to stay healthy while traveling: Drink plenty of water. “Staying hydrated is incredibly important,” said Dr. Lin. “Bring water and reusable containers with you at all times, especially during activities that require physical exertion.” If you’re traveling to a place with unsafe water, drink only bottled liquids and avoid eating anything washed under the tap. “And you probably should avoid alcohol if you feel like you’re coming down with something,” added Dr. Prine.
Get tons of sleep and eat well
Dr. Prine emphasized the importance of eating well and getting proper sleep on vacation, since these actions can help you fight infection. Vegetables are particularly helpful in preventing illness. “There is mixed evidence about whether or not vitamin C really wards off viruses, but it can’t hurt,” she added. That’s a good reason to eat plenty of oranges, peppers, strawberries, and leafy greens.
Get some exercise
Although you probably don’t want to spend your getaway at the gym, doing lots of walking, hiking, biking, swimming, or other exercise on vacation will help you stay healthy. “Exercise gives you extra energy and an immune boost, so travel is not the time to neglect your workouts,” said Dr. Prine. The good news is you’ll probably do tons of inadvertent exercise while you’re traveling, since you’ll want to walk around and see the sights or splash around in the pool or ocean.
Take extra care when traveling abroad
“For travel outside the U.S., I recommend that patients call their physician or schedule a pre-travel consultation,” said Dr. Lin. “Their primary care physician will inform them whether they need certain vaccinations or prophylactic medications, given their specific destination.” The doctor can also help you control chronic conditions to stay healthy while traveling.
After all that, you might still get sick — here’s how to ward off impending illness
Despite your best efforts, you may wake up with muscle aches and a runny nose — but not all hope is lost. According to Dr. Lin, “If you’re developing cold symptoms, try over-the-counter vitamin C and zinc (such as Zicam) within the first 48 hours of symptoms. This might shorten the duration of illness.” She also recommended using a Neti Pot for cold, sinus, or allergy symptoms. Of course, those with more serious issues (shortness of breath, severe abdominal pain, sudden vision loss, seizures, etc.) should seek medical care immediately.