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Why can’t my family stay healthy when we travel? It seems like SOMEONE gets sick every time. Does this happen to your family too? If you think about it for a minute, it makes some sense that travelers are more susceptible to picking up a communicable disease. Your doctor will tell you that there are two things that will make it more likely for you to catch an infectious disease. 1) Exposure to more infected people (think airport terminals, airplanes, public attractions); and 2) Increased susceptibility to infection. Dehydration, sleep deprivation, and stress all contribute to making us more susceptible to infectious disease. Unfortunately, while our travel DESTINATION often brings us peace and relaxation, the process of getting there can expose us to all of those factors that make us more likely to get sick.


These five tips can help you stay healthy while traveling:

1) Wash your hands

Some of the most valuable lessons you’ll ever learn, you learned back in kindergarten. It was true then and it’s still true now. The single best thing you can do to protect yourself from infectious disease, especially of the cold and flu type, is to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. That means use soap, and rub vigorously – friction is as big a part of the washing process as the suds are. Washing your hands after using the restroom is a bare minimum.

Dr. Gina Suh, a Mayo Clinic infectious disease specialist recently explained to the Washington Post that our hands are the way that we interact with the world around us. So we touch all kinds of surfaces that have previously been touched by someone who has a cold or the flu, without even noticing or thinking about it. But then, “most people touch their face many times in any given minute, and that can transmit illness.” Effective hand washing ideally uses running water, soap, and at least 20 seconds of scrubbing (to see if you’re washing long enough, try singing “Happy Birthday” in your head twice while washing. That should be just about 20 seconds). Hand sanitizer is OK as a backup if soap and water aren’t available, but soap and water are better.

2) Manage stress

Stress and anxiety can weaken your body’s natural immune responses on their own. And we frequently compound that problem with unhealthy ways of dealing with that stress. Many of us fall into the trap of eating our stress, and the junk food that we often consume as a stress response crowds our healthier options. We may drink too much alcohol, which can lead to behaviors that actually impose MORE stress on us. It’s important to make room for self-care when travelling – especially during holiday travel times.

Try to stick to your usual waking/sleeping/eating schedules as best you can, so that you’re staying consistent with your body’s expectations of you. Remind your traveling partners that you all need to cut each other a bit of slack in the face of travel stress, and give each other room for mistakes (and to recover from mistakes). And don’t be shy about calling a time-out for yourself. While togetherness is an important aspect of family travel, there’s nothing wrong with sending the rest of the family ahead to lunch without you and taking some quiet alone time to allow you mind and body to de-stress.

3) Get a flu shot

Peak holiday travel season coincides with peak flu season. Do yourself a favor and get your flu vaccination before traveling for the holidays.  You cannot catch the flu from a flu shot – flu shots use ONLY dead virus cells. You may have a general immune system reaction to a flu shot, but a couple of days’ discomfort from the shot is far less damaging to your travel plans (and your overall health) than an influenza infection. Even if the shot doesn’t provide 100% protection from the flu, it reduces the severity of the infection if you get one anyway. A 2018 study showed that receiving a flu vaccine reduced the chances of an adult needing to be admitted to an ICU with the flu by 82%!

4) Stay hydrated

Traveling inherently interrupts our usual schedule, and one frequently-overlooked result of those interruptions is that we simply forget to drink water. Going from home to airport, from ticket counter through a secured area, from waiting area to boarding a plane – each transition interrupts our instinct of when it’s time to get a drink of water. We think, “I’ll get some water after …” – and then forget, until we feel like we should just wait until the next “after.”

The cumulative effect of those delays tends to leave us with a hydration deficit before we’ve even boarded a plane. Once on board an airplane, we’re subjected to the dehydrating effect of a recirculating HVAC system, and this leaves us susceptible to the effects of dehydration, including headaches and yet another stressor on our bodies’ immune system. Over-hydrating isn’t necessary or advisable either. The best strategy is to travel with a refillable water bottle. The bottle can be emptied before going through security lines, and then re-filled once you’re in the secure area. Carrying that re-filled bottle onto the plane with you frees you from the flight attendants’ service schedule and gives you the best chance at retaining your usual, healthy, level of hydration.

5) Get enough sleep

This is the place where I catch myself slipping up the worst. Travel and vacation activities are always at least somewhat disruptive of our usual schedules. But when you start a vacation with a sleep deficit, you’re giving cold and flu viruses a head-start. The night before a vacation starts, it can be hard to get to sleep – the combination of anticipatory excitement, “what am I forgetting?” nervousness, and generally disrupted schedule can be quite the insomnia recipe. Consider treating the day BEFORE you actually leave as your “go day.” Do all of the last-minute packing a day early. For example, rather than waiting to pack your medications (in a carry-on bag, of course), just take out what you need for the next day and pack the rest. Go ahead and put yourself in the on vacation mindset a day early. Then, try and manage time to go go sleep on the night before your departure as close to your regular schedule as possible. Wind down and head to bed at the same time you normally would. An over-the-counter melatonin supplement can help by encouraging “time for sleep now” brain chemistry.

While it’s a good idea to ensure that you get adequate sleep throughout your vacation, it’s especially important to avoid starting out with a deficit. 

While we can’t make any promises, your chances of enjoying a cold-and-flu-free vacation are much higher when you follow these suggestions. What’s your favorite tip for staying healthy while traveling?


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