How to stay healthy during the busy travel season

November 30th, 2017

kid hanging out a car window on a snowy winter road.

With the upcoming holidays, millions of Americans will travel, either for vacation or a trip to Grandma’s house – via plane, train or automobile. But when they get there, will they be sick? There are ways to stay healthy while traveling – not foolproof, maybe, but effective enough to make them worth trying, said Dr. E. Seth Kramer, who is based at the UCHealth Family Medicine Clinic – Westminster and is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Colorado Denver.

Here are some of his thoughts and suggestions for healthy travel:

Rule No. 1

“Actually, the No. 1 thing to remember is really three things: get plenty of rest beforehand, wash your hands frequently and stay hydrated,” he said.

Dr. E. Seth Kramer, D.O., MPH
Dr. E. Seth Kramer, D.O., MPH

Sanitizers

How effective are hand sanitizers and sanitary wipes?

“They can be effective for certain things, but there are other ways of getting sick – especially respiratory-wise. (Sanitizers) may not provide the benefit we think. There’s only so much you can do,” since many viral illnesses are airborne.

Vitamins and supplements

“The current evidence-based literature doesn’t indicate any net benefit from daily vitamin use, unless you’re pregnant,” he said. “And to take vitamins and supplements for just a short time will probably have no effect on getting an illness.”

Immuno-compromised patients or pregnant patients might have some benefit if they take them daily all the time, he added. But those over-the-counter power packs of supplements are not effective in preventing illness.

“There’s no evidence that they prevent acute respiratory illness … they likely act as placebos,” Kramer said.

What about advertising claims that they help prevent or ameliorate illness?

“Many of these products are studied by their own research labs, so the results may be biased,” he said.

Over-the-counter aids

So are there other products on the market that can help you travel healthy and resist becoming ill, or at least lessening the symptoms?

“A lot of these products may decrease the duration a little bit, or decrease the discomfort you are feeling, but the illness usually plays out as it will,” Kramer said.

Some OTC products may provide some relief, he said, though he also believes in “the good old home remedies – a humidifier, honey for sore throat or cough and even chicken soup may be just as helpful in alleviating discomfort. There are plenty of products for cough, congestion and sinus pressure that may lessen symptoms. Find what works for you,” he suggested.

Antibiotics

Carry your regular medications with you, of course, but for most people it’s not necessary to pack a prescription for antibiotics.hiker on the edge of a lake in the winter

“That really needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis. I have a couple of patients who have significant medical conditions that are recurrent and may require immediate treatment … but for general travel, I’d say not.”

In this instance, the doctor-patient relationship plays a role in determining whether or not to let the patient have a pre-emptive prescription for something that might occur.

Food and drink

When it comes to domestic travel, Kramer doesn’t see much problem with food and drink.

“I don’t think it’s as much of a concern here in the U.S. as in international travel. Some of my patients travel to Mexico, and I will advise them to take Pepto Bismal to help prevent gastrointestinal issues.

“I did have an experience of getting sick the first time I went to Mexico.   It spurred me on to taking better care of myself when I travel.” He takes Pepto when going to at-risk areas.  “It works well and it’s cheap,” he said.

Packing pills

Travelers should pack a basic medicine kit whenever they travel, he advised.

He suggested  acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain, maybe Sudafed for people who have sinus issues with flying (take it just before you fly) and perhaps a cough suppressant or decongestant.

Hotel rooms

There are people who wipe down the entire hotel room with sanitary wipes. He says that probably is not necessary in most lodgings.

“You can definitely go overboard,” he said. The main thing is to wipe down television remotes and telephones and to avoid comforters that probably are not washed between guests.

Public transportation

What precautions should you take on planes, trains and in taxis?

“Take similar precautions … maybe wiping door handles, food trays, things like that,” he said. More important than what you touch is keeping your own hands clean by frequent washing with soap. And, if traveling abroad, keep up with vaccines.

“Be up to date on your flu shot and tetanus shot if you’re going to be active,” he said.

Masks

Most people don’t need to wear one, he said, but “I would recommend wearing a mask if you have an underlying respiratory disease, such as asthma or COPD and there’s an air quality alert or you are going to an area with poor air quality.”

Hydration

Back to Rule No. 1, staying hydrated “is one of the most important things you can do, especially when flying,” he said. “Take a liter bottle with you and drink one to two of those during the day. Just keep sipping on it.”

Sleeping

Everyone knows rest is important to good health, but what if you can’t sleep while traveling?

“Get a good night’s sleep before you travel,” he advised. “Consider if you are going to experience significant changes in time. Melatonin can be started a day or two before travel, throughout your trip, and stopping upon your return, to help regulate your sleep pattern.”

Insurance

Not everyone thinks to do this, but travelers should check with their health insurance company to see if they are covered for out-of-town doctor or emergency room visits.

“That’s a great idea,” he said. “Things keep changing. You probably won’t have as much of a problem with urgent care or an ER as with a private provider. Know if your insurance has extended benefits beyond its network.”

That way, even if you don’t stay healthy, you can get help.

About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs and a regular contributor to UCHealth Today. She has written travel articles for major U.S. newspapers and national, regional and local magazines. She spent 32 years as an award-winning writer, reporter and editor for The Gazette in Colorado Springs.