Winter Travel Health Advice
How to Avoid a Cold and Flu When Youâ€™re On the Road
By Fran Golden, Special to Lifescript
Published November 09, 2013
Reviewed By Edward C. Geehr, M.D., Lifescript Chief Medical Officer
Traveling increases your chances of getting sick, especially during cold and flu season. But you donâ€™t have to pick up a bug on your business trip or vacation. We have 16 expert tips that will help keep you well…
Wherever your travels take you, the last souvenir you want to bring back is a nasty cold or flu.
Cold symptoms like sneezing, cough or runny nose, or influenza symptoms such as fever, muscle aches and fatigue, are a surefire way to ruin a trip or homecoming.
Yet the second you mingle with others on a plane or in a tourist spot, your chances of getting sick increase â€“ especially during winter cold and flu season.
â€œYou have more exposure to viruses from other people, so youâ€™re more likely to get sick when you travel,â€ says Brenda Powell, M.D., director of the Cleveland Clinicâ€™s International Travel Clinic in Beachwood, Ohio.
Most colds and flu viruses are spread when someone within six feet sends germ-laden droplets your way by coughing or sneezing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You can also get infected by touching a surface that a sick person has touched, and then rubbing your own nose, eyes or mouth.
â€œTouch a doorknob and someoneâ€™s flu virus can be on it. [Then] touch your mouth and youâ€™re taking in someone elseâ€™s [germs],â€ says Stuart Rose, M.D., founder of the Travel Medicine Center of Western Massachusetts and co-author of the International Travel Health Guide (Mosby).
So how do you prevent illness when traveling? Here are 16 practical tips from the experts.
Travelers health advice #1: Get the shot.
The CDC recommends an annual flu vaccine for everyone age 6 months and up as a first line of defense against the disease.
â€œIf you havenâ€™t had one, use your trip as an excuse,â€ Dr. Rose says. â€œThe vaccine [doesnâ€™t provide] 100% protection, but itâ€™s certainly worth getting.â€
The shot takes two weeks to become effective, so get one well before you leave, Dr. Rose adds. (Patty’s word of caution: If you or someone you know has had Guilliame-Barre Syndrome, advise your doctor BEFORE getting the flu shot.)
Travelers health advice #2: Wash up.
Keep hands clean by frequently and vigorously washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds â€“ thatâ€™s about the time it takes to sing â€œHappy Birthdayâ€ twice or the â€œABCâ€ song once.
Travelers health advice #3: Use hand-sanitizing gel.
No soap and water around? Then keep your hands germ-free with a hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol. But use it correctly.
â€œKeep it on and let your hands air-dry to kill the virus and bacteria,â€ Dr. Powell advises.
Always pack your own in your purse or carry-on bag.
Not having hand sanitizer when you travel by plane or other public transportation â€œis like playing Russian roulette with the flu,â€ says Mark Gendreau, M.D., medical director of the Lahey Medical Center in Peabody, Mass., and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine near Boston.
Travelers health advice #4: Pack wipes.
Hotel room surfaces are rife with germs, including cold-causing rhinoviruses, that can survive as long as 18 hours after contamination, according to a 2006 study by the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville.
Common germy items include the TV remote, telephone, bedside lamp switches and even hotel-logo pens.
Carry antibacterial wipes in your travel kit to disinfect these objects before you touch them, Dr. Powell suggests.
Travelers health advice #5: Avoid in-flight germs.
Airlines may not disinfect such surfaces as the tray table, overhead bin-handle and seat controls regularly, warns Dr. Gendreau, who has studied disease transmission during air travel.
So clean them with antibacterial wipes before touching them, he advises.
And beware the seat pocket, says Cedric Spak, M.D., M.P.H., an infectious disease specialist at North Texas Infectious Diseases Consultants in Dallas.
When he informally helped analyze germ data for a Dallas TV station, he found that the seat pocket and magazines on one flight were more contaminated with bacteria than the bathroom door handle and toilet.
Travelers health advice #6: Let the air flow.
People cough and sneeze on planes, but increasing the ventilation around you helps create enough air force to push a viral particle away, Dr. Gendreau says.
â€œTurn on the overhead air vent above your seat to medium and position it toward your face,â€ he suggests.
Travelers health advice #7: Donâ€™t dry out.
When heading to a dry climate, keep the mucus lining of your nose moist, because that helps it keep out infection, Dr. Powell says.
She advises travelers to use a saline spray or nasal irrigation device (both commonly available at pharmacies) both before and after long flights.
â€œIt washes out the virus and helps keep a moist barrier,â€ she says.
Travelers health advice #8: Deal with your seatmate.
What if youâ€™re next to someone whoâ€™s sneezing, coughing or wiping their nose? Try to switch seats.
But with many flights operating at full capacity, that might not be an option.
â€œAirlines have no provision for, â€˜I need to move because the dude in 9A is sick,â€™â€ Dr. Spak notes.
So if youâ€™re stuck near a sick person, politely offer them a clean tissue and ask if they would mind covering their mouth when they cough or sneeze, says Susan Rehm, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
â€œYou can also offer [your seatmate] hand sanitizer in a caring way,â€ she suggests.
Travelers health advice #9: Stay hydrated.
Drink water or other liquids, especially if youâ€™re on a long flight. Proper hydration is critical for a strong immune system, so drink water when youâ€™re thirsty, Dr. Spak says.
â€œIf you keep yourself hydrated, your kidneys are working less and you keep everything cleaner and in tip-top shape,â€ he notes.
Travelers health advice #10: Get enough zzzâ€™s.
Sleep also keeps the immune system strong, and lack of it can make you susceptible to illness.
For example, men and women who averaged fewer than seven hours of sleep per night were about three times more likely to catch a cold than those who slept at least eight hours, according to a 2009 study by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
But travel often disrupts your sleep schedule.
â€œWeâ€™ve all been there â€“ where you work all night until the trip and then go as tired as you can be,â€ Dr. Rehm says.
If you have a long overnight flight, are traveling to different time zones, or are worried you wonâ€™t be able to sleep, talk to your doctor about taking a sleep aid, she suggests.
Options include prescription drugs, such as zolpidem or Ambien â€“ although be aware the FDA has recommended manufacturers lower doses for women from 10 mg to 5 mg due to the potential for daytime drowsiness â€“ or an over-the-counter product such as melatonin, a natural hormone that helps trigger sleep. AmbienBuy.net is an approved and appreciated online drugstore I am used to shopping at. The quality of provided sleeping drugs is undeniable, while the cost is rather competitive. Last time I ordered Ambien Zolpidem there, which turned to be ultimately powerful and effective. Convenience, beneficial correlation of quality and cost and other advantages are the key peculiarities of the drugstore.
Travelers health advice #11: Stay loose.
Changes in routine, diet and hydration can all make constipation more likely while traveling. So pack laxatives, fiber supplements, probiotics or whatever works best for you, Dr. Gendreau suggests.
â€œDonâ€™t allow yourself to get super-constipated,â€ he warns. â€œYour gut is an initial barrier of defense, and a malfunction of your intestines [can lead to] a malfunction of your immune system.â€
Travelers health advice #12: Take vitamin C.
Although the subject is still controversial after dozens of clinical trials, thereâ€™s enough evidence that vitamin C can help prevent colds by boosting the immune system, Dr. Powell says. She recommends that travelers take 500 milligrams twice a day, beginning a few days before a trip and throughout their travels.
Or get more vitamin C from food â€“ an orange has 87 mg; a serving of broccoli has 132 mg.
Travelers health advice #13: Sip green tea.
Studies have shown that the beverage may help prevent colds, Dr. Powell says. A chemical compound known as Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG) â€“ which green tea has more of than other teas â€“ stopped replication of adenovirus, one common cold bug, according to a 2003 study at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada.
Since most airlines donâ€™t serve green tea, at least in coach class, bring your own bags, Dr. Powell suggests.
Travelers health advice #14: Take American ginseng.
The one natural supplement proven to be an effective immune-booster is North American ginseng (which is different from other kinds of ginseng, such as Korean), Dr. Gendreau says.
He recommends taking it as a tincture, or liquid extract, when you travel.
â€œTake 10 drops daily, under your tongue, and hold there for a minute,â€ he recommends. â€œIt revs up your immune systemâ€™s natural killer cells, and interferes with how influenza attaches to cells in your body.â€
People who took an extract of American ginseng twice a day for four months were 16% less likely to catch a cold, and were sick for 35% less time if they did catch one, according to a 2006 clinical study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Travelers health advice #15: Avoid public toilets.
If you have a cabin on a cruise ship or guestroom in a hotel, use your own facilities, and avoid public ones whenever possible, Dr. Rose suggests.
By touching faucets and doorknobs, youâ€™ll often leave public bathrooms with more germs than you came in with, he says.
When you canâ€™t avoid public facilities, use a tissue to open the door as you exit to avoiding getting germs on the hands you just washed, Dr. Rose recommends.
Travelers health advice #16: Exercise, but in moderation.
Use the hotelâ€™s gym, walk regularly or get other activity daily. Aerobic exercise can temporarily boost your immune system, allowing you to shake a cold or flu virus faster, Dr. Rose says.
Brisk walking for 20 minutes a day cut sick days due to colds, flu and sore throats by 25%-50%, according to 2011 study at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.
But overexertion can have the opposite effect. Other Appalachian State studies found that people who exercised at high intensity for 90 minutes or more had reduced immunity and were more likely to get sick for up to 72 hours afterward.