5 Tips for Avoiding Illness While Traveling

A traveler at Logan International Airport in Boston wears a mask for protection against the swine flu as he rolls his luggage after flying in from Puerto Rico.
A traveler at Logan International Airport in Boston wears a mask for protection against the swine flu as he rolls his luggage after flying in from Puerto Rico.
AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Whether you travel for business or for pleasure, and whether you plan to take a trip by yourself or with your family, the last thing you want interfering with your travel itinerary is illness. Nobody wants their trip ruined by an intestinal virus or to arrive home with a serious case of the flu. Unfortunately, travel opens a host of opportunities for exposure to germs and to other factors that can leave the human body vulnerable to disease. From the crowds of people on airplanes, to sudden changes in altitudes, fatigue that weakens the immune system and exposure to germs to which our bodies haven't built up a resistance yet, there are lots of ways to get sick while you're on a trip.

But don't let a fear of germs keep you from leaving the house. Life would be dull without travel, and by taking these few simple precautions, that we've listed here in no particular order, you can greatly reduce the chance that you'll come back from your vacation with something more than a bag filled with souvenir T-shirts.

5
Don't Drink the (Local) Water
Drinking water is poured into a glass in Erfurt, Germany.
Drinking water is poured into a glass in Erfurt, Germany.
AP Photo/Jens Meyer

This is probably the oldest travel tip in the book, but it's as true today as it was when the first tourists arrived on the beautiful beaches of the New World. The water supply in many countries (but especially in the less economically developed parts of the world) is often contaminated with microorganisms that can cause potentially debilitating intestinal illnesses such as traveler's diarrhea (also known as TD or more commonly as Montezuma's Revenge). Your immune system develops a resistance to these germs fairly quickly, but in the meantime, you may find yourself wishing that you'd never gotten off the plane.

Preventing TD is fairly easy. Instead of taking a cold drink from a water fountain or guzzling it straight from the tap, stick with bottled water and canned beverages. If you don't have that option, boil the water before you drink it -- you may even decide to use it to make a cup of coffee or tea. And if you'd prefer a cold drink, don't cool it down with ice cubes -- they carry the same germs the tap water does.

4
Wash Your Hands
First-grade students wash their hands before lunch at the South Loop Elementary School in Chicago.
First-grade students wash their hands before lunch at the South Loop Elementary School in Chicago.
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Your mother was right: You should always keep your hands clean. At least when they're likely to come in contact with objects and surfaces that have been handled by someone who might be coming down with a cold or the flu. Once the germs are on your fingers, you can easily spread them to a vulnerable part of your body, such as your mouth or nose. This is especially true in a crowded environment like an airplane, where a large number of people are packed together in a small space, constantly touching things and breathing recirculated air that has more and more germs in it the longer the plane remains in the low oxygen environment of the stratosphere.

Of course, you can't necessarily excuse yourself to go to the restroom every hour just for a brisk hand washing, so carry a small bottle of commercial hand sanitizer with you, preferably one with a high alcohol content (at least 50 percent). It's specially designed to minimize the risk from germs and it makes your hands smell better in the bargain, too. And because respiratory illnesses are commonly spread by hand to nose contact, keep your hands away from your face -- if at all possible.

3
Get Vaccinated
Nurse Kim Bigham gives Alfredo Ochoa a vaccination against the H1N1 or "swine" flu.
Nurse Kim Bigham gives Alfredo Ochoa a vaccination against the H1N1 or "swine" flu.
AP Photo/Reed Saxon

You should get vaccinated against any diseases that may be endemic to the region where you're headed at least four weeks before a trip out of the country. That's how long it takes most vaccines to provide your body with full immunity against germs. Even if you're rushing out of town on a last minute business trip without a lot of time to prepare, it's a good idea to get vaccinated against local diseases before you go, even if it means a quick rush to the doctor's office when you'd rather be shopping for a nice tie to wear to that important meeting. The last-second vaccination may lessen the severity of any illnesses you contract.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Web site has important information about what diseases you should be vaccinated against before traveling to certain parts of the world. They divide the vaccines into three classes: routine vaccinations, recommended vaccinations and required vaccinations. That last group is the most important because you're literally not allowed to leave the country without them. For instance, at the time this article was written, yellow fever vaccinations are required for travel to sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South America.

Of course, if your family plans to travel abroad at some indeterminate time in the near future it may be best to go ahead and get the recommended vaccines now, to avoid the last minute rush.

2
Get Lots of Rest
Passengers fall asleep while waiting for their flight at Taoxian International Airport in Shenyang, northeast China's Liaoning province.
Passengers fall asleep while waiting for their flight at Taoxian International Airport in Shenyang, northeast China's Liaoning province.
AP Photo/Xinhua, Guo Dayue

This is easier said than done. Vacations are supposed to be restful, but they rarely are. To the contrary, if you plan to take your family sightseeing in an exotic land or if you're on an important business trip where you're expected to meet with a bevy of high-powered associates at an unending series of meetings, you'll probably be working on a very tight schedule. That will likely leave you with little opportunity to lie down to rest or even to catch a decent night's sleep.

This kind of physical stress can weaken your immune system, especially if your biological clock has been thrown off by jet lag. If at all possible, schedule at least one day in your trip to adjust to the changes in clock time, so that you won't spend too much of your trip fighting the fatigue that comes from being awake at odd hours. The less stress you put on your immune system, the better the chances it can fight off the bugs that it'll encounter on your journey.

1
Acclimate Yourself to High Altitudes
Skiers sit in a chair lift in front of the Alp mountains Nordkette near Innsbruck, Austria.
Skiers sit in a chair lift in front of the Alp mountains Nordkette near Innsbruck, Austria.
AP Photo/Christof Stache

Most of us spend our lives living fairly close to sea level and our bodies are accustomed to breathing air of a certain density. But if you travel someplace where the altitudes are higher -- on a skiing trip to the Alps, for instance, or to the mountains of the Andes -- the air that you breathe will be thinner and your lungs will suddenly find themselves deprived of the oxygen levels they normally expect. The effects of this oxygen deprivation on your body can be debilitating. You can become weak, lightheaded or even develop stomach problems. You may find that you're suddenly unable to keep up with all those strenuous vacation plans you were so looking forward to when you were on lower ground.

Your body can adjust to these changes in altitude, but it takes time. If at all possible, take the trip by stages, spending the first night or two at somewhat lower altitudes. As your respiratory system adjusts, move up to greater heights. And if you're determined to hit the alpine slopes on the first afternoon of the trip, you might not want to spend the night at the ski lodge. Instead, book accommodations a couple of thousand feet closer to sea level so your body can catch up on oxygen while you sleep.

If you're looking for more ways to avoiding illness while traveling, follow the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Vaccinations." Nov. 13, 2009. (June 16, 2010) http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/content/vaccinations.aspx
  • Chen, Lin, M.D. "Avoid Illness While Traveling." Mount Auburn Hospital Health Connection. (June 16, 2010) http://www.mountauburnhealthconnection.com/article.php?a=261
  • Familydoctor.org. " High-Altitude Illness: How to Avoid It and How to Treat It." December 2009. (June 16, 2010) http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/healthy/physical/injuries/247.html
  • Rodriguez, Diana. "Protecting Yourself from Airplane Germs." Everyday Health. Feb. 5, 2009. (June 16, 2010) http://www.everydayhealth.com/healthy-travel/airplane-germ-protection.aspx
  • Strange, Rodney. "Avoiding Illness on Vacation." Article Health and Fitness. Jan. 9, 2010. (June 16, 2010) http://www.articlehealthandfitness.com/articledetail.php?artid=35553&catid=418&title=Avoiding-Illness-on-Vacation
  • Wu, Michelle. "Avoiding Illness on the Road." The Wall Street Journal. Feb. 1, 2010. (June 16, 2010) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704878904575030381545543318.html