Staying Healthy During Winter Travel

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By Peter Greenberg

The arrival of winter means it’s time for cold-and-flu-mayhem, but this year we’ve officially hit ‘epidemic’ levels. With 21 pediatric deaths and a record-setting number of hospitalizations—214 as of January 2–it’s important now more than ever to watch out for your health, especially when you’re spending hours on an airplane. A large number of travelers are just not responsible and do not wash their hands or carry much concern for the well being of others, so it’s up to you to take care of your health this winter season. I’m not a doctor … I don’t play one on T.V. And you should always consult your own personal physician. But based on years of my worldwide travel experiences, here’s what I suggest:

Get a flu shot. First, let’s dispel the myth that the flu shot can give you the flu. According to the CDC, needle-administered flu shots come in two different forms: one that contains inactivated flu viruses (inactivated means it cannot give you the flu) or no flu viruses at all (again, no virus means it cannot give you the flu). If you know anyone who says they got the flu from a flu shot, they likely contracted a totally unrelated respiratory illness that had flu-like symptoms, or they contracted a different, and rare strain of the flu virus, since the traditional flu shot covers only the three most common strains. Regardless, getting the shot can save you, and your fellow travelers, a ton of stress and hassle.

Wash your hands. This one is a no-brainer, but people still struggle with it. When you’re traveling, you come into contact with a lot of surfaces other people touch. It’s unavoidable. Then, it’s easy to accidentally brush your eye or your nose or your mouth with a contaminated hand. One trick is to use the back of your elbow if you have to touch high-germ count areas like elevator buttons, tray tables, and remote controls. You should also carry an alcohol-based sanitizer as well, just to be safe.

Wear a disposable face mask. Don’t be surprised if you see more travelers wearing these; you get no style points, and while there’s no scientific proof it consistently helps, there’s also no indication it doesn’t.

Take your vitamins. I’m not saying that vitamins are necessary for everyone. Some doctors say that if you eat well and look after yourself, you have no use for vitamins at all, but for those of us who have been eating a little more comfort food than kale recently, it might be a good idea to go ahead and pick up some supplements to help your system out. Or, if you just want to give your immune system a boost, grab some Vitamin C.

Stay hydrated. This is essential. When you’re flying, the change in altitude coupled with dry air is a surefire recipe for dehydration, so it’s important to drink water regularly, especially if you’re fighting something off. One trick: bring an empty water bottle through airport security so you can fill it up once you’re inside.

Pack a first-aid kit. Carry a mini first aid kit in your carry-on-it can be as simple as a small Zippered plastic bag. Here are some things to consider including: a thermometer, allergy pills, Band-Aids, aspirin, eye drops, nasal spray, anti-diarrhea pills, decongestants, antacid tablets, antibiotics, and motion sickness pills. For those with asthma, include an inhaler, and for those with severe allergies, include an EpiPen.

Stay rested. This one should be another no-brainer, but I’ll say it anyway. Our immune systems weaken when we don’t have enough sleep, so every hour you skip is raising your risk of getting sick. Getting enough sleep is one of the easiest things you can do to prevent yourself from days of discomfort.

Protect your nose from dry air. Our noses create mucus when a foreign bacteria or virus is encountered. Research shows that keeping your nasal passages hydrated is effective in boosting your body’s own system of germ eradication. Carry nasal mists and saline nasal sprays with you, especially on long plane flights. If you’re worried about the TSA 311 liquids rule, you can also bring a salve like Aquaphor, and place small amounts at the base of each nostril. It may sound strange, but it can keep your nose from getting dry.

Cough or sneeze into a tissue. If you don’t have one, use your inner elbow. Coughing and sneezing into your hand is the easiest way to pass along germs. If you cough or sneeze into a tissue instead, you can simply throw the germs away. If you don’t have a tissue, opt for the inside of your elbow instead of your hand, because at least this area rarely makes contact with anything else. Either way, wash your hands (or elbows) immediately afterward.

Travel with your own blanket or pillow. This isn’t about comfort or security. it’s about prevention. Few airlines provide blankets and pillows anymore, and the ones they do often harbor germs. Carrying your own light blanket and inflatable or foldable pillow can act as another precaution against cold and flu transmission. You can also use both in hotels, especially if you’re worried about transferring germs.

Open the air vents. On the plane or in the car, there is often a lack of circulation, which creates a safe haven for bacteria that can often get recirculated. So, turn on that air vent and get the air moving. And if you’re in a car, it’s also about purging the air that’s inside. Once every twenty minutes, open the windows for twenty seconds.

Skip the cocktail. Alcohol not only dehydrates you, but also contributes to jet lag. If you drink alcohol to reduce anxiety or help you sleep, consider other options instead, such as taking melatonin or drinking an herbal tea, such as chamomile.

Get moving. If you’re stuck on a long flight or on a long car ride, make sure to get up or stop at a rest area to walk around and shake out your legs. Moving your body around gets circulation through your blood and lymph system, allowing for better illness prevention.

Sometimes we can’t help flying when we’re sick though, so it’s also important to at least be aware of what happens in your body when traveling with the cold or flu. You know that feeling of fullness you get in your ears as you climb to 30,000 feet? Well, that’s from your middle ear trying to equalize to accommodate for the change of air pressure. After swallowing a few times, the pressure will often disappear, but not always when you’re sick. Due to congestion, your middle ear has a much harder time equalizing, and this extra pressure leans into your eardrum and can cause quite a bit of pain (in severe cases it can even rupture the eardrum). To avoid this inevitable discomfort, take a decongestant before flying. And then, an hour before landing, use a pair of specialized ear plugs, called EarPlanes, that help regulate the pressure.

Your best bet is to consult a physician about what methods of prevention or treatment may be right for you.