With news of COVID-19 continuing to dominate headlines around the world, the discussion about how travelers can stay healthy — and keep others healthy — has never been so important. Of course, COVID-19 isn't the only illness that's a threat to travelers, whether they're in the air or on the ground.
But with so many competing health tips out there, it can be hard to know exactly what will keep you healthy and what won't. Read on for our list of what public health experts suggest you should and shouldn't do if you want to increase your odds of staying healthy while traveling.
Diligently check travel alerts and warnings
As COVID-19 is demonstrating right now, travel alerts and warnings can change quickly — even overnight. This is as true for safety concerns as it is for disease outbreaks. While you may first hear breaking news on your social media or news network of choice, it’s important to corroborate these headlines with facts from reputable agencies. Trusted resources include the U.S. CDC, the U.S. Department of State, and the World Health Organization (WHO). Be sure check these sources when you’re deciding whether to book a trip and when it’s time to depart.
Wash your hands regularly and don’t touch your face
Hand washing has become a hot topic in the wake of COVID-19 — however, you need to do it correctly for it to be effective. This means using soap and hot water while scrubbing all surfaces of your hands vigorously (including under your fingernails) for at least 20 seconds. Use a dry paper towel to open any doors after washing your hands (your elbow can also be helpful in the case of airplane bathroom door latches). Hand-washing will also help lower your risk of contracting other surface-born diseases, like conjunctivitis and certain strains of the flu. Research has also shown that colder temperatures (like those often found inside of airplanes) can allow certain viruses to live on surfaces longer. To further minimize your risk, avoid touching your face (including biting your nails).
Sanitize your space and high-contact surfaces
Airplane seat trays and headrests harbor high levels of germs, so a thorough wipe with sanitizing towelettes is a good idea. Additionally, take note of any other high-contact surfaces, whether among your personal belongings (phone screens are a culprit) and your environment (touch-screen TVs on planes). Be prepared to give those surfaces a cleansing wipe as well. Unfortunately, airplane seatbacks, handrails in subways and metros, and plenty of other surfaces we touch while traveling aren’t so easy to disinfect on your own. Be mindful of touching your face in these scenarios, and opt for hand sanitizer if you can’t wash your hands right away.
Get vaccinated well ahead of your trip
Now that the COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed, it would be optimal to be vaccinated before travel if you qualify. However, vaccines and prophylactic treatments also exist for many other diseases. You should always check with a health professional well before traveling to find out which vaccinations are recommended for the destination(s) you’re visiting. In some cases, vaccinations are required – for example, many countries where yellow fever is present will require you to have proof of vaccination before you are allowed to enter. Additionally, you should be up to date on routine vaccines like polio and tetanus, as well as the hepatitis sequence. Note that two weeks must pass before most vaccinations will provide immunity, so you’ll want to schedule appointments as well prior to your departure date.
Do some research about health care in your intended destination
If you’re traveling internationally, you’d be wise to research how health care works in your destination. This includes knowing the equivalent to 911 (in case of emergencies), the relative availability of urgent care, and what your level of coverage is with your insurance while traveling abroad. You’ll also want to have a 30-day supply of daily medications (or other necessary medicine) with you in case you are stranded abroad. Should you run out of medications or lose yours somehow, keep in mind that many medications are known by different names outside of the United States. All of your prescriptions should be in their original bottle with labels showing your name to avoid any issues at customs.
Stretch and take a walk during your flight
Untold hours confined to an airplane seat (or a seat on a car, train or bus) can take a toll on your health. Aside from sore muscles and joints, the most alarming risk is deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT is caused by staying in one position for too long. This can make blood clots form deep inside of your body, which may be exacerbated by pressure changes in airplanes (especially flights over 4 to 6 hours, according to Columbia University). Doing regular stretching exercises can diminish the likelihood of this happening, as can getting up and walking around your plane cabin. Travelers with a history of blood clots or genetic predisposition to them should consult a physician before flying. Compression socks, like these by Comrad, are another effective tool at combating DVT.
When it comes to lists of the most dangerous animal in the world, it’s the pesky mosquito that always takes the No. 1 spot. This is due to the disturbingly common blood-parasite disease that they carry and spread – malaria – and its 17% mortality rate. A range of preventative antimalarial pills are the main line of defense if you are traveling to a malaria zone, though some pills can cause serious side effects so choose carefully. When you know you’re in mosquito territory apply DEET repellent, wear long pants and sleeves and avoid being outside at dusk.
Limit your alcohol consumption before and during travels
While most of us equate travel with vacations and good times — and thus alcohol — there is a direct correlation between drinking and poorly functioning immune systems. While responsible drinking isn’t a problem, binge drinking is. And the threshold for binge drinking is lower than you you might expect — according to the CDC, four or five drinks over the course of two hours is enough to do it in most adults (though that number varies by age and body weight). Research shows that the depressive effects on your immune system effects may be immediate. With that in mind, you might want to think twice about posting up at the bar before your flight and downing the free alcohol on your long-haul flight.
Keeping yourself topped up with the required levels of H20 is all the more important when you are traveling. The desiccating effects of air travel are well documented, so always try to keep a water bottle in your carry on – many airports have water fountains after security. Most airlines are not legally obliged to provide water free of charge, and reports suggests on-board tap water is not the cleanest. You should also consult trusted sources on whether or not the tap water is drinkable in your destination.
Use safe eating practices
Sampling the local cuisine is certainly one of the great pleasures of traveling, but ensuring proper food hygiene is crucial. That’s particularly true when it comes to street food or in countries where the tap water is notably hazardous. The rules about food generally go: If it’s steaming hot, it’s safe to eat (so long as you avoid any uncooked garnishes). When it comes to raw fruits and vegetables, if you can peel it, it’s safe to eat. However, if the fruit is precut or you’ve opted for a salad, you’ll want to ensure that the restaurant uses filtered water to wash produce if you’re in a country where the tap water is genuinely unsafe. Precut fruit that’s been sprayed with tap water by street vendors should be avoided at all costs.
Get plenty of sleep
Going to sleep is often the last thing you want to do when experiencing the thrill of touching down in a new town, but dodging sleep is the quickest way to run down your immune system and expose yourself to illness. Travel can put your body under a lot of strain, and sleep is the best way to help it recover. There are a few tricks to help you if you’re on a long-haul flight to a different time zone. For starters, try to sync your schedule with your destination as much as possible before leaving. You can also mimic your natural sleeping and waking patterns during the flight, depending on how long it is and where you’re going. For instance, if you’re leaving New York City in the morning and landing in the evening in Tokyo, stay awake for the vast majority of the flight in order to be close to normal upon landing. If you’re heading to the Middle East on an overnight flight, bring good earplugs, melatonin, and try to get sleep as close to your normal times as possible. Once you arrive, being sure to get out in the sunshine is a proven trick — it helps reprogram your circadian rhythm. Eating meals in line with the new time zone can help reset your digestive patterns.
Pack a first aid kit
Being stuck somewhere without even basic medical supplies can turn a simple cut or scrape into something more serious. Always remember to include a miniature first aid kit in your day-bag — it could really make the difference. Sterile bandages and antiseptic cream can help prevent an infection, antihistamines can counter many unexpected allergies, and tweezers are surprisingly useful in many situations. Be sure to pack basics like acetaminophen and ibuprofen as well. Basic first aid training, too, can be invaluable when traveling.
What won’t keep you healthy while traveling
Using only hand sanitizer
While hand sanitizer is helpful in preventing infection in the absence of soap and water, relying on it as the sole method for cleaning your hands isn’t the best way to stay healthy. You’ll also want to steer clear of any so-called natural hand sanitizers, as research suggests that in order for any hand sanitizer to have antibacterial or antiviral effects, it must consist of 60% to 95% alcohol. Soap and water remain the best way to keep hands clean.
Closing the air vents above your seat on the airplane
Talk to any traveler and you’ll likely hear fears about catching diseases while you’re trapped inside of the narrow body of an airplane. However, the truth is that your risk of catching any illness in a plane comes from the same places as it does in other spaces: from close contact with someone who is ill, or touching a surface with bacteria or viruses on it and touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Airplanes are all outfitted with hospital-grade HEPA filters that help diminish the amount of particles in the air, making the air inside of planes potentially more healthy than any other space in which you are close to others, according to the WHO and NPR. There’s also evidence that those overhead vents may in fact prevent airborne and droplet-borne diseases from reaching you by blowing them away from your face.
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