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Mind Body and Soul: When the Travel Bug Bites…Staying Healthy on Vacation

By Patricia A. Guth

 Being sick is never fun, but when you or a loved one becomes ill while traveling, it’s a real downer. Not only does it ruin your vacation, but it also prompts concerns about healthcare services away from home, especially when traveling in a foreign country where the care may be less than exemplary.


In recent years, episodes like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak and the H1N1 epidemic have indeed made travelers more aware of the potential for picking up germs that might be hitchhiking on planes, in rental cars, aboard public transportation, or anywhere frequented by large numbers of people, both within the U.S. and abroad. As a result, travelers haven’t stopped traveling. They’ve just become more diligent about preserving their good health.

It’s the Other Guy’s Fault

A 2007 survey conducted by World Access, a travel insurance company, reported that about 35 percent of all business travelers interviewed for their study noted that they or a co-worker had become seriously ill while traveling. The numbers are slightly lower for leisure travelers but still fairly significant. The biggest culprit? Others who travel when sick, eager to stick to their vacation plans or to salvage that important business meeting despite not feeling well at the time of their departure.

Indeed, the SARS outbreak of 2003 began when several individuals infected with the virus boarded a plane without regard for their condition, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to eventually issue an emergency travel advisory. Similar advisories were made during the H1N1 scare.

And rightfully so. The most dangerous time of year to board a crowded plane, physicians stress, is during peak cold and flu season. It’s at that time of the year that people eager to escape the winter doldrums are most likely to travel when sick, putting others at high risk for the same.

They’re Everywhere!

Travel-related germs are no different than those one might encounter at home, but a study by the Journal of Environmental Health Research notes that you are 100 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane than you are while performing your normal daily routine. The main reason, the study noted, is the low humidity in the cabin. It causes the body’s natural defense system–the mucus in the nose and throat–to dry up and become a better host for germs. Hence, staying hydrated is one of keys to avoiding such germs.     

As might be expected, toilets are of huge concern while traveling, including the ones on your plane, bus, train or even in your hotel room. Dr. Charles P. Gerba, who has made it his business to study germs, notes, however, that the seats of the toilet aren’t the only concern. Toilet flushing ejects contaminated water into the air and onto everything around it. So, public toilets, which might be flushed hundreds of times per day, are nothing short of evil when it comes to the spread of germs. Avoid them when possible, but when using one is a necessity, spend as little time there as necessary and keep objects away from the spray.

But toilets are certainly just the tip of the iceberg, Gerba says, and he believes there are even worse places for germ breeding. Trains and subways, for example, can be as big a menace. And think about that remote control in your hotel room or, worse yet, the blankets and pillows that have been used by innumerable guests! Or how about your rental car? Even surfaces in museums, aquariums, or other seemingly harmless attractions can harbor germs, simply because thousands of people pass through these tourist destinations on a daily basis, especially during peak vacation season.

Germ Warfare


Despite obvious risks, some travelers, faced with the potential of a week away from the hubbub of work and the stressors of everyday life, tend to throw caution to the wind while on vacation. All good habits go out the window, but the germs and other health concerns remain. It’s this abandoning of a good health regimen that gets vacationers in trouble. Here are a few simple ways travelers can cut down on the risk of getting sick and ruining a long-planned vacation.

  • Wash your hands and keep them away from your face. We’ve all heard it ad nauseum, but it’s by far the most effective way of reducing germs. Wash your hands several times a day with warm water and soap, especially after being in a crowded public area, and avoid touching your face before your hands are clean. Liquid sanitizers are a reasonable substitute when no water is available.


  • Learn to use a public restroom properly. It’s a good idea to use your foot to flush the toilet and to use a paper towel when turning the water on and off or opening the restroom door when exiting.


  • Carry sanitizing wipes. If you’re worried about things like shopping cart handles or other surfaces touched frequently by others, wipe them off before use.


  • Eat well. Just because you’re on vacation, it doesn’t mean you need to abandon all your healthy habits. Take a multi-vitamin each day, keep alcohol consumption to a minimum, and if you’re traveling domestically or in Western or Northern Europe, Japan, Australia or New Zealand, fill up on fruits and vegetables. (However, consuming fresh produce is a no-no in most developing countries.)


  • Drink bottled water. Keep bottled water with you and drink it throughout the day. Avoid tap water when traveling to foreign locations. Experts note that traveler’s diarrhea, usually caused by impure water, affects some 50 percent of international travelers to some degree.


  • Get enough sleep. As with eating, sleeping habits often change while on vacation and many people stay up late and sleep less. However, tired people have weakened immune systems and a greater chance of getting sick, so be sure to grab enough ZZZs.


  • Stay active. Take advantage of the hotel fitness center, walk when you can, and find time to be out in the sunshine. Exercise and a good dose of sun can help enhance your immune system as well.


  • Be informed. If you’re traveling abroad, be aware of any health warnings associated with each country you plan to visit, including info such as what’s safe to eat and where you can swim without getting sick. Websites such as,  and provide general and country-specific health and safety info.


Don’t Let Germs Get You Down


Though there is indeed growing general concern about getting sick on the road, the potential for picking up germs on vacation is just a fact of life, the CDC’s Kozarsky notes. Despite these ever-present bacteria, most doctors agree that those who approach vacation with a “let’s stay healthy” attitude and practice germ prevention tips should emerge from their excursions relatively unscathed. Happy traveling!


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