When travelers return home from a vacation, they typically bring cool souvenirs, cherished memories and a broadened perspective on the world. But sometimes they also come home with a terrible cold, digestive problems or other health issues.
It’s common to get sick when you travel, whether you come down with symptoms during the trip or start feeling bad after the return. But this outcome doesn’t have to be inevitable.
“You can assume that travel will increase the risk of getting sick, and none of us wants to get sick while traveling, said Dr. Henry M. Wu, an associate professor at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Emory TravelWell Center. “It makes sense to take extra precautions we don’t do on a daily basis.”
Below, Wu and other doctors share the things they always do when they travel to avoid getting sick.
Masking In The Airport And On The Plane
“Although COVID is no longer as large of an issue as it was, given that I am in close quarters with the same circulating air on an airplane, I still wear a mask on all flights and in the airport,” said Dr. Barbara Bawer, a family medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Depending on where you are going, wearing a mask in crowded places is also important.”
She suggested packing at least a couple of masks in case one gets soiled or ruined. High-quality masks like N95s are your best bet for reducing germ transmission in crowded indoor situations.
“I still lament the time I sat on an overnight train in France across from a couple that coughed and sneezed the entire trip — only to get a horrible cold a day later and miss the 48-hour French countryside wedding extravaganza I had traveled so far to attend,” said Dr. Sarah Battistich, an emergency medicine specialist at New York University Langone. “Now I routinely wear masks in transit, whether or not there are identifiably ill persons around me.”
Face coverings can also offer protection in multiple ways.
“The mask will keep you from touching your nose and mouth with your hands,” said Dr. Heather Viola, a primary care physician at Mount Sinai Doctors-Ansonia.
Frequently Washing And Sanitizing Hands
“First and foremost, I constantly wash my hands, always carrying with me hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol to prevent the spread of germs,” Viola said. “Many airlines are giving out alcohol-based disinfectant wipes when you board. I use these to clean my seat, headrest, armrests, tray table, and entertainment screen — basically, anything you may touch while sitting in your seat.”
Packing your own alcohol-based disinfecting wipes can also be useful.
“I am a big proponent obviously of hand washing,” Battistich said. “But also trying to limit touching of shared surfaces and therefore limit the risk of coming into contact with bacteria and viruses. I make a game out of it with my daughter to not touch any surface in public bathrooms, including doors and toilet seats.”
“If I’m taking a long flight, try to start out well hydrated and avoid alcohol on the plane,” Battistich said.
Maintaining a healthy water intake was a priority for all the doctors who spoke to HuffPost.
“I always travel with electrolytes ― packets of dissolvable electrolytes ― for water or vitamin water,” Viola said. “This is a good way to keep hydrated with more than just water and help prevent in-flight nausea or dehydration.”
Taking Immune System Boosters
Viola is also a fan of nasal mists and vitamin C tablets prior to boarding.
“The plane cabin is dry, and microorganisms are free to circulate in the air, so before I go on a plane, I take a few vitamin C tablets to boost my immune system and help give my body the ability to fight off airborne germs,” she said. “Nasal saline spray or nasal mists can also help fight germs as they keep your nasal passages moist, which enhances your body’s own germ-flushing activity. You can even apply a small amount of Neosporin or petroleum jelly just inside the nostrils — using a Q-tip if your hands aren’t washed — to create a barrier between you and the airborne germs.”
Avoiding Peak Travel Times
“If possible, try to travel during non-peak times, which often is the middle of the week and mid-morning or midday, instead of very early or in the evening,” Bawer said. “This may depend on your city, though, so do some research ahead of time.”
Avoiding the biggest crowds and sense of stress is a good way to cut down on your potential exposure to germs, and traveling in the middle of the day typically allows for a full night’s sleep the night before or after your flight.
“Make sure to get adequate rest before your flight and if able, try to sleep while traveling when appropriate,” Bawer said. “When returning home, give yourself some time to re-adjust back to your daily schedule and environment. Try not to return home at 11 p.m. or midnight and then have to head straight to work the next day. Give yourself a few hours or, if able, an entire day at least to recover, get caught up on laundry or grocery shopping or other needed chores, and get plenty of rest.”
Fatigue can impair your immune system, as well as decrease your endurance and negatively impact your mood.
“I’m a big fan of those flat packable travel pillows which support your neck, and I’ve found bringing ear plugs and an eye mask or scarf to keep out the lights is super helpful for getting that extra bit of rest — like that hour at the end of a night flight where you still want to sleep but the flight crew turns the bright overheads on,” Battistich said.
Just as you should prioritize rest to help your immune system, you should also try to reduce stress where possible.
“Don’t overschedule your trip to allow time to enjoy yourself and give some flexibility in the itinerary,” Bawer advised. “Stress can induce sickness, especially in a new environment.”
Eating A Well-Balanced Diet
“Eat a well-balanced diet leading up to the trip to get your body and immune system ready to fight anything it comes into contact with and on the day of travel as well,” Bawer said. “Most people don’t eat as healthy while on vacation but try to incorporate fruits and vegetables with all meals to keep your immune system at the highest level.”
She always packs healthy snacks and a refillable water bottle to ensure she gets the nutrients she needs during her travels.
“Often we don’t have time to eat, especially with flights being delayed or late, and we either skip meals or grab something quick, which is rarely healthy,” Bawer noted.
Researching Travel Vaccines And Medicines
“I make sure I am up-to-date on vaccines before travel,” Wu said. “Flu and COVID-19 are so common among travelers, and even a mild case can ruin a trip. Also, for international travel, there are additional vaccines that might be recommended or required, or even malaria prophylaxis for some areas. I suggest travelers check the CDC [Centers for Disease Control Prevention] travel website or see a travel medicine specialist for advice.”
In addition to getting the necessary travel vaccines ahead of time, you may want to procure special medications in advance.
“Consider getting a prescription for diarrhea medicine if traveling to another country where traveler’s diarrhea may be an issue,” Bawer advised. “If traveling to another country, avoid drinking their water — this includes anything washed with local water like salad and fruit. Focus on eating foods that have a shell and don’t need washing and drink bottled water. Also, use this to brush your teeth. This can help to avoid traveler’s diarrhea from developing.”
Packing an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal like Imodium is another good idea, especially when traveling internationally.
“If I’m uncertain about particular meals, I try to stick to foods that have been fully cooked and are served hot, avoiding raw and undercooked foods,” Viola added.
Keeping Up With Sun Protection
“Wear sunscreen daily,” Bawer urged.
Whether at home or on vacation, you should apply (and reapply) a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every day. Keeping up with your sun protection regimen is especially important if you’ll spend a lot of time outside during your travels.
“Sunburn and heat-related illnesses are some of the most easily preventable causes of a ruined vacation,” Battistich said. “Don’t forget sunscreen, long sleeve shirts ― linen is great for hot climates ― and hats. The bigger and more packable the hat, the better.“
Buying Insect Repellent
“If it’s an outdoorsy trip or I’m going to tropical areas, I make sure to pack bug repellent,” Wu said. “Mosquitoes, ticks and other biting bugs can transmit many infections.”
Ensure your sunscreen complies with local regulations and check the CDC’s recommendations for effective products.
“It isn’t always easy to find these things on the fly, so preparing in advance will eliminate the chance I am caught off guard,” Wu added.
“I also bring over-the-counter medications that I will have on hand in case I start to feel unwell,” Viola said.
She packs acetaminophen for pain or fever, ibuprofen for pain, an antihistamine like Benadryl and Pepto-Bismol in case of stomach upset.
“My doctor’s travel kit included some preventatives and some emergency rescue meds,” Battistich said, listing many of the same medications, as well as anti-nausea medications and remedies like SeaBands, ginger packets, and aromatherapy sticks.
“There is evidence that taking Pepto-Bismol tablets before and during travel can help reduce in the risk of traveler’s diarrhea,” she added. “I also back very basic wound kits with Band-Aids, antibiotic cream, and if going to a hot and humid climate, or when hiking and backpacking, I will also often bring an antifungal cream.”