Image: phoney nickle @ FlickrAbout six months ago a colleague was preparing to return from a week long trip to the UK and began feeling ill as she arrived at Heathrow.  She was able to board the aircraft but still was feeling queasy and had an upset stomach. What ensued over the next 8 hours is one of every traveler’s worst nightmares…

Once the plane was airborne she became ill with what could euphemistically be termed a “double whammy” case of the flu.  Use your imagination. She spent hours in the lav.  The flight attendants were wonderful but needless to say, it was a miserable, horrible experience.

There are no guarantees that you won’t get sick while traveling, but there are several tactics you can employ that will significantly reduce the chance that you’ll get sick on the road

The last few days prior to departure…

As I’ve posted previously, your routine and behavior prior to your trip is just as important as what you do during your trip:

  • Try to be as rested as possible; if your immune system is weakened because you’re run down or stressed out, it’ll be less able to fend off illness
  • Maintain your exercise regimen, within reason; utilize lower impact workouts as your trip approaches – definitely don’t overdo things as your departure date nears
  • As always, wash your hands frequently to try to avoid cold and flu germs
  • Make taking a good multivitamin part of your daily routine
  • If you’ll be traveling internationally, call your physician’s office well in advance to schedule any necessary innoculations.  Check the CDC website if you’re not certain what’s required

Packing strategies…

  • If you are being treated for a pre-existing condition, get a letter from your physician describing the condition and any prescription medications (including generic equivalents) you are taking for treatment (esp. true for international travel or LONG domestic trips)
  • Make sure you pack your prescription meds, and bring along several extra days’ worth, should you become stranded
  • Also make certain you have your health insurance ID card and all critical phone numbers with you
  • PLEASE make certain all your emergency contact information is captured in an ICE (In Case of Emergency) entry in your cell phone’s address book – get the full details of how to do this here:  Critical information to store in your cell phone
  • Also when packing, toss in an emergency medical kit – see my 11 essential thingspost for details on what I typically carry
  • There are a few other things I’d encourage you to pack:
    • Antibacterial lotion – Purell or something similar
    • (Optional:) travel size disinfectant spray
    • Antibacterial wipes
    • Bacitracin ointment  (more on all of these in a bit)

Prior to boarding

As he describes it, Dan Pink’s strategy for preparing for flights is “disgusting,” but Dan (best selling author of The Adventures of Johnny Bunkoreviewed elsewhere on Practical Hacks – and A Whole New Mind) is a true road warrior and he swears by this tactic:

You can find all of Dan’s travel tips – and much more – on his blog.  Here’s a direct link to Pink’s travel tips.

BTW:  you can pick up a tube of Bacitracin at any decent drugstore; I paid $4.99 for a 1 oz. tube @ Walgreens.

On the plane…

OK, let’s face facts:  the plane’s a mess. It’s not as though the cleaning crew disinfects the bugger while you’re waiting to board.  As an added bonus, the air in the cabin is recirculated and dry.  Some simple precautions you can take…

  • Wash your hands frequently or use a sanitizer like Purelldsc_0265
  • Pick up a package of antibacterial wipes. I purchased the container shown here for $3.49. Put several of these wipes in a ziploc bag; when you get on board, wipe down the armrests and tray table & then ditch the used wipes in an extra bag – or use the airsickness bag. Don’t put them back in the bag of clean wipes!
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol as it’s a diuretic and will further dehydrate you
  • Stretch – get up and walk about a bit – particularly on longer flights
  • Bring your own reading material – no matter how fascinating the SkyMall catalog is, who knows how many people have handled it before you!
  • Bring along a few decongestants or chewing gum, should your ears become plugged from cabin pressure.  If you have a chronic issue with plugged ears while flying, you might want to consider a product called EarPlanes – some have had excellent success with it
  • Pack your own snacks – bring along some healthy snacks and avoid airport junk food
  • Relax – practice relaxation techniques or simple meditation – stress is your enemy: the greater your stress level, the weaker your immune system

In your hotel…

If the plane’s a mess, your hotel room is just as bad if not worse.  I know I sound like a germaphobe, but keep in mind that you’re protecting your health and a little precaution costs you virtually nothing…

  • Before unpacking – check for bedbugs. Pull the covers back quickly & look for scampering critters.  I wouldn’t even mention this, but saw an eye opening show on TV a few years ago about the prevalence of bedbugs – even in good hotels…  ’nuff said.
  • By now everyone knows this, so – briefly:  hotel bedspreads are rarely launderedTurn it down and don’t let it near your hands and face. If you’re concerned about being cold at night, pull a blanket off the other bed or get an extra from Housekeeping
  • In a similar vein:  use the bed for sleeping only.  Don’t eat on it, don’t work on it!
  • Consider using a spray disinfectant. Lysol makes travel-sized aerosol cans.  If you go this route, spray down the pillowcases and sheets upon arrival
  • Skip the ice – do NOT use ice from the ice making machine!  You have no idea who’s been handling the scoop or touching the ice
  • If your room has conventional drinking glasses (as opposed to plastic-wrapped plastic cups) wash them thoroughly with hot water & soap before use
  • The same tactic applies to the coffee maker carafe
  • How often do you think the hotel cleans the carpets in its rooms?  Don’t go barefoot – wear socks or disposable flip-flops
  • If you’ve brought along antibacterial wipes, use them on the phone receiver, alarm clock, & TV remote
  • Get some exercise.  If you haven’t brought workout gear along, consider doing some crunches, squats, push-ups or jumping jacks each morning or evening.  Put extra towels on the floor if doing push-ups or crunches
  • Loneliness is a factor for travelers.  Bring along a photo of your loved ones or even your pet – in your wallet, on your cell phone or computer; stave off loneliness by thinking about home
  • More than 50% of travelers report having difficulty sleeping while on the road.  Do what you can do to avoid this:  go to bed at your regular time, avoid excessive alcohol consumption, eat light, and get some exercise.  I’m not a big fan, but if you must, take a prescription sleeping pill or Tylenol PM®

Dining out…

Staying healthy on the road certainly extends to how you eat…

  • Go light.  If dining with colleagues, take it easy on the alcohol early on so as to exert a bit more control over your caloric intake
  • Try to avoid eating late at night – it could disrupt your sleep
  • Again, drink plenty of water in order to stay hydrated
  • If you must have dessert, try to keep it light – something like seasonal berries or fruit vs. bread pudding or “death by chocolate”
  • Choose busy restaurants; avoid street food
  • Safe foods: fresh, fully cooked hot dishes that are served hot; fruits that are peeled before eating; fresh baked bread and muffins
  • Foods to avoid: buffets where food sits at room temperature for an extended time; raw or under-cooked food.  If traveling internationally, particularly to developing countries, avoid salads, raw vegetables, sauces left out at room temperature, and milk products; use bottled water only, including when you brush your teeth

A few final thoughts…

The bottom line?  Not surprisingly, doing what we’ve all heard many times makes sense:  stay rested, stay hydrated, wash your hands frequently, get some exercise, and use your head when it comes to food and alcohol.

These always make sense, but particularly so when we travel.  I hope this post encourages you to be aware that as we travel we suddenly are much more likely to come in contact with cold and flu bugs and to take nothing for granted.  Things that you’d think nothing of touching when at home – a magazine, a glass, or something as simple as a TV remote – can be culprits when it comes to your health on the road.

If the worst happens and you do get sick on the road?  Check out my post “What to do if you get sick while traveling” for some pointers.

When you’re not traveling, throw – if you opt to use them – your package of antibacterial wipes in your go-to travel bag; when you’re packing you can put several in a ziploc and you’ll be set.

If you have unique strategies for staying healthy while traveling, please share by commenting.  Thanks for visiting!

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5 Comments on The no-nonsense guide to staying healthy while on the road

  1. Michael W. says:

    1. Stay away from kids right before leaving. They catch EVERYTHING and promptly pass it along to us! (Since the kids I have in mind are my own kids, this won’t actually work for me.)

    2. Keep fingers away from nostrils, mouth, and eyes. That’s as delicately as I can say it – but the truth is, colds and flus are transmitted by CONTACT not by air (unless there is a massive sneeze in the vicinity and you inhale the droplets!). We touch something, we scratch a nostril, try to dig something out of our teeth, or scratch our eyes – and BAM, infected.

    3. Take an aisle seat on flights over 3 hours – there was a recent article that DVT (deep vein thrombosis) is twice as likely to happen for window seats. No explanation given, but my guess is that someone snoozing next to a window just doesn’t want the hassle of getting out of their seat. Plus they are probably sound asleep, unlike those of us on the aisle, constantly shifting position so we can catch a little sleep. The old exercises they used to have on pull-out cards are great for warding off DVT – little knee raises onto tip toe, stretching arms overhead etc. – it’s too bad they are hard to find these days. The article on DVT indicated MODERATE drinking (alcohol) can help ward off DVT since alcohol inhibits clotting, but if I were to follow that principle, I’d take a “10 mg” baby/stroke aspirin instead. Alcohol dehydrates and makes jet lag worse.

    4. Consider a “youth hostel bed sack” – Cocoon makes an ultralight silk one, REI makes a slightly heavier, bulkier version out of synthetic fabric. Two words: lice and bed bugs. Ok, 3 words.

    Your comments about keeping our regular routine before departure is absolutely right. Don’t go “couch potato” if you regularly exercise; don’t go beserk at the gym if you do; don’t lose sleep packing and fretting. Our goal should be: if I weren’t traveling I wouldn’t be getting sick, so why does travel make me a “magnet” for every cold and flu in town?


  2. Wow I am glad that I don’t think about all that stuff when I am on vacation but I probably will now thanks a lot!


  3. Patrick says:

    My girlfriend has got me to bring along baby wipes now. We use these instead of disinfecting wipes, which can be a little too harsh for certain things. They come in their own dispenser that is more travel friendly and you can put that in a Ziploc, to prevent the spill of the liquids. These are lifesavers and CVS has our fave brand for odorless.


  4. Michael W. says:

    Patrick’s comment about baby wipes vs. disinfecting wipes makes me think.

    I also worry about the harshness of disinfectant wipes.

    For my Brazilian jiu jitsu, where there is a constant risk of skin infections (no different from wrestling and other “mat sports”), I just take a shower without soap after each training session.

    While I use a non-disinfecting soap for my daily morning shower, I find that a post training “water only” shower is plenty to rinse off sweat, contaminants, and generally just knock down the “bad bacteria and fungus” count without decimating the “good” bacteria count and otherwise drying out my skin (research “commensual skin bacteria” for the word on our “natural” bacterial friends). Between rinsing off and scrupulously washing my judo uniform after every class, I’ve never had a skin infection (though I have had an allergic reaction to the enzymes in some detergents, rubbed into my skin via friction from the judo uniform while drilling and sparring – hence a switch to Trader Joes ultra-mild laundry soap).

    So I think a baby wipe should be more than sufficient for getting bacterial grime off, at least enough to the point where what’s left won’t be dangerous.

    But I think some disinfecting wipes or gel might still be good for the toilet seat. And I use flip-flops religiously when using hotel/motel showers. I always either have socks or flops on.


  5. Does the packaging strategies involves only the medical records and medicines? Who will take care of the important things like the passport and air-ticket? I was just kidding, brother! Altogether, it is a nice post.


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