Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of vacation season, with sunny, balmy weather beckoning travelers to pack up and go. But satisfying that wanderlust can also leave you at risk for health problems. You might end up sharing a long flight with a sniffling seatmate, struggle to find fresh veggies, or come down with a nasty case of food poisoning.
Here are tips from experts on how to stay healthy while traveling, whether it’s a weekend road trip or a dream trip to another continent.
1. Do your homework. Research your destination. Look up whether any health providers accept your insurance, or consider buying travel health insurance. If you plan to travel outside the US, schedule a visit with a travel clinic at least 4 to 6 weeks before you leave so you can get any needed medications or vaccines. (Typically, immunity doesn’t kick in until around two weeks post-vaccination.) Visit the travel page at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for advisories and recommendations, and come prepared with questions. If you’re pregnant or considering pregnancy, be sure to ask your doctor about the risk of Zika.
2. Put together a travel health kit. Wherever you go, include the basics like alcohol swabs and bandages, and antihistamine and topical steroid cream for bites and allergies, ibuprofen or other pain pills, eye drops for irritation, and anti-diarrhea medicine and laxatives (you never know!). Once you run out of your small supply, you can usually buy more locally.
Dr. Steven Zell, an internist and professor with the University of Nevada School of Medicine, recommends adding latex gloves, hand sanitizer or antibacterial wipes, and a surgical mask to arm yourself against germs. Although some swear by vitamin packets like Emergen-C or Airborne, they have limited effect, says Eric Gaden, a travel nurse who blogs at Adventure Nickel. Best-case scenario, they can shorten the duration and severity of illness, he says.
3. Stock up on your medicines. Make sure you have more than enough medication for your chronic conditions or allergies before you leave, or talk to your doctor about writing a backup prescription that you can fill on your trip if necessary. Bring a list of medications you and others in your group are taking in case you end up needing care on your trip. Always pack medicines in your carry-on luggage. Keep them in their original packaging or have a written prescription on hand in case you’re questioned about your drugs, especially when traveling abroad. You might want a copy of your eyeglass and contact lens prescription as well, in case you need replacements.
4. Beat the boredom blues. Bring activities to keep your kids entertained (and minimize your own stress) on longer trips. Shireesha Dhanireddy, medical director of the infectious disease clinic at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, usually brings action figures, card games, puzzles, paper, pencils, and an iPad for watching movies to keep her children entertained. For older kids and grownups, loading up books on a Kindle or other reading device can save a lot of space and weight.
5. Get up and walk around. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a serious problem that can occur if you’re sitting for long periods of time. The risk is greater in people with existing cardiovascular problems, older adults, and pregnant women. In DVT a blood clot forms in deep veins, often in the legs. Those clots can then travel to the lungs, blocking blood flow there. If you’re driving, stop often and stretch your legs. On flights you can prevent DVT by standing up and walking around every hour or so. Gaden recommends a set of about 5 to 10 calf raises too (go up and down on your tiptoes).
6. Guard against stomach woes. Whether you’re struck by stomach flu or traveler’s diarrhea, nothing puts a damper on vacations quite like digestive problems. Here are some tips to safeguard against stomach bugs on your upcoming trip:
Pack your own food for the journey. That way, you minimize the risk of food poisoning and exposure to the germs that lurk in any crowded place. “The more time you spend around crowds of people doing things like eating and touching your face, the more susceptible you are to getting sick,” Gaden says. Choose healthy food that travels well, like PB&J sandwiches, carrot sticks, snap peas (and the occasional treat to keep it fun). Eat high-fiber foods, like dried fruit, and drink plenty of water to avoid constipation.
Be careful around raw food. When traveling in most developing countries, avoid eating raw fruits and vegetables. Rinse produce thoroughly with clean water, and peel off rinds yourself. In case the local produce doesn’t seem safe or palatable, pack trail mix, oat bars, dried berries, and nuts, which provide the same nutrients, says Matthew Klapetzky, clinical director of Passport Health at the University of Rochester School of Nursing.
Know where your water comes from. While abroad, drink purified or bottled water, or opt for soda or boiled drinks. Make sure bottled water is commercially sealed. (Sometimes vendors refill bottles with tap water.) Check that ice cubes are made with purified water, or skip the ice altogether. And don’t forget to use bottled water to brush your teeth. You can also buy a purification kit before your trip at your local sporting goods store.
7. Outsmart jet lag. When crossing multiple time zones, jet lag can affect your alertness, mood, appetite, and sleep patterns — not a great way to have a fun vacation. Although hard to avoid completely, you can take steps to make it more bearable.
Stay up late. Most people find it easier to alter their schedule by staying awake later than sleeping earlier. If you arrive at your destination at 8:00 am after a red eye flight, resist the urge to snooze in your hotel room all day. Instead, check in, shower, and then head out and explore. Eat and sleep on schedule with your destination.
Melatonin can help. If you decide to use a sleep aid, melatonin can be a gentler alternative to prescription sedatives, according to theNational Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). Despite mixed data, melatonin does seem to work for some people (although children under 10 shouldn’t take it). Take it about a half hour before you need to sleep.
Don’t push it, especially with kids. “With kids, you can’t really force their schedule,” Dhanireddy says. “You kind of have to let [jet lag] work itself out.” Be patient. Get them to play outdoors. Exercise and sun exposure can help beat jet lag.
8. Practice a nighttime ritual. Sticking to the same nightly ritual you follow at home can help reset your body’s internal clock and ease homesickness, especially for kids. Dim the lights, take a warm shower, sip some herbal tea, read a book, or turn on a relaxing playlist. Besides helping you relax and reset, a nightly ritual allows you to recharge so that you can embrace each moment of your journey. “It gives you a better ability to attack each day fresh and with a very positive state of mind,” Klapetzky says.
9. Careful mixing sunscreen and bug spray. If you’re going somewhere sunny or buggy, pack sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15, preferably 30, that offers UVA and UVB protection and bug spray containing at least 30 percent DEET. Avoid products that combine DEET and sunscreen, since re-applying sunscreen also means applying more DEET, a potent mosquito repellent that can be toxic in high amounts. Apply sunscreen 10 to 15 minutes before bug spray, giving the sunscreen enough time to react with your skin. Otherwise, it will simply “ride on top [of the repellent] like glaze on a donut,” Klapetzky says.
10. Remember personal safety. Although travel often triggers fears of infectious disease, accidents and injury are much more common, Dhanireddy says. Always pay attention to your surroundings. Avoid traveling alone, especially in off-the-track areas or at night. Carry a whistle in case you need to call for help. If you’re driving, make sure you get plenty of rest beforehand to avoid falling asleep at the wheel, or make sure you can trade off with another driver.
If traveling abroad, remember that many countries don’t require seatbelts or child safety seats. Take your own car seat if you have kids, or use public transit instead of riding a car without a seatbelt. If you’re traveling to an area with stray animals or near the wilderness, talk to children about animal safety, reminding them not to approach creatures they don’t know.
11. Fit in fitness. Bring comfortable walking shoes that you’ve already broken in. For long car trips, leave enough wiggle room for unplanned detours to hiking trails or historical sites. Incorporate walking into your itinerary — visit a park, museum, or farmer’s market, for instance. Bring an inflatable ball, especially if you have kids. “If you throw a ball, a kid will run and catch it,” Gaden says. For fitness buffs, he recommends a quick, high-intensity workout. Start with one minute of pushups at your highest effort, followed by 30 seconds of rest. Repeat with squats, jumping jacks, and planks.
12. Stay positive. Accept that not everything will go according to plan. Despite even the most painstaking efforts, you might still get sick. Don’t let something minor like a cold spoil your fun. “Some people, the minute they get sick, assume everything is ruined and hide in the hotel,” Gaden says. Stick to your original plans, and commit to enjoying yourself. “You can still manage to have a good trip.”