When you’ve got gifts to buy and family to see, getting sick is the last thing you want during a holiday vacation. After all, catching a bug puts a damper on any vacation, let alone a trip to celebrate the season with friends and family.
“There’s always an uptick in illness during the holiday season,” notes Eric Ascher, DO, family medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. This is due to several factors, including an increase in virus activity and more frequent social interactions, he says.
Luckily, by focusing on the following healthy habits, your chances of getting sick are greatly diminished—so go forth and travel confidently during the upcoming holiday season, and enjoy the festivities with peace-of-mind.
Wash your hands frequently
Regular hand washing is one of the simplest ways to stay healthy while traveling. “Wash your hands with soap and hot water before meals and after using a toilet, just as you would at home,” says Scott A. Weisenberg, M.D., clinical associate professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
He says it’s also a good idea to wash your hands periodically throughout the day, especially after touching public surfaces like elevator buttons, benches, or handrails. Doing so may further reduce the risk of acquiring some infection-causing bacteria and viruses.
If you can’t access soap and water, be sure to use hand sanitizer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol, which is thankfully more readily available than the early months of the pandemic.
Sanitize frequently touched surfaces
To avoid picking up germs, bring a travel pack of disinfectant wipes so you can sanitize high-touch surfaces, such as your phone, credit cards, wallet, keys, headphones, and handle and zippers on luggage. You should also wipe down surfaces that you’ll come into close contact with, such as the headrest or tray table on a plane. For best results, Dr. Ascher recommends using wipes that are antibacterial, antiviral, or indicate that they protect against flu and COVID.
Pack a refillable water bottle so you can stay hydrated on the go. This will help “your body flush out unwanted toxins that can lead to disease if [they linger] too long in your body,” explains Dr. Ascher. Proper hydration also allows oxygen to flow into cells, helping your body to perform its most basic functions.
Staying hydrated is especially important if your travel plans involve alcohol and/or sunshine, as both can lead to dehydration. In this case, “drink a glass of water in between alcoholic beverages and for every hour spent in [the sun to] help prevent dehydration,” he says.
Although it’s easier said than done, prioritizing sleep is key for staying healthy during holiday travel. “Your body needs sleep to prevent infection and keep your immune system strong,” explains Dr. Ascher. Lack of sleep, on the other hand, will reduce your body’s ability to produce infection-fighting immune cells.
If your destination is in a different time zone, try to gradually adjust your sleep schedule before your trip. Or if you’re on an overnight flight, sleeping on the plane may help reduce jet lag.
At your destination, avoid napping early in the day, as this can make it difficult to adjust your sleep schedule, says Dr. Ascher. If you decide to nap later in the day, keep it short. Depending on the timing of your body versus destination, you can also take melatonin or consume a bit of caffeine, according to Dr. Weisenberg.
Give your immune system a boost
Before and during travel, give your immune system a boost by “maintaining a well-balanced diet, keeping hydrated with a safe water source, getting enough sleep, and not overindulging in alcohol,” says Dr. Weisenberg. It’s also worth talking to your primary care doctor before traveling, especially if you have a chronic condition that increases your risk of contracting infectious illnesses. They may recommend certain supplements, such as vitamin C, as well as a frequency and dosage for your specific situation.
Wear a mask
“Wearing a face mask is your best line of defense against illnesses when traveling,” says Dr. Ascher. This will reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19, the flu, and other common cold viruses. For optimal protection, find a well-fitting N-95 or level 3 medical grade mask with a tight grip on the face, which will prevent particles from entering your respiratory tract.
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