Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season

Post originally Published January 11, 2024 || Last Updated January 11, 2024

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Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Wash Your Hands Frequently

Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season

Washing your hands frequently is one of the most effective ways to prevent catching or spreading illnesses while traveling. According to the CDC, handwashing decreases the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 31% and respiratory illnesses, like colds, by 21%. With germs lurking on airplane tray tables, hotel remotes, and more, it's critical to wash up often.

Travelers should be sure to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap before eating, after using the restroom, after touching surfaces in public places, and after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose. Many travelers recommend keeping a small bottle of hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol in your purse or carry-on bag. This allows you to sanitize your hands even when soap and water isn't available, like before eating airplane snacks or after touching a banister in a museum.
Frequent hand washing is especially important if you're visiting developing countries where hygiene standards can be lower. "When I backpacked through Southeast Asia, I washed my hands constantly to avoid getting sick. I always kept hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes in my daypack," said Cheryl R., a Mighty Travels reader. She recommends washing hands after taking public transportation, touching money, or visiting crowded markets overseas.

In addition to washing hands, travelers should avoid touching their face, particularly eyes, nose and mouth, unless they've just cleaned their hands. It's also wise not to share personal items like water bottles that touch your mouth.
While diligent hand hygiene is no guarantee you won't get sick, most health experts agree it's the top defense against contracting and spreading illness. "Washing hands frequently should be an essential routine, especially when traveling," says Dr. Neil Swartz, an infectious disease specialist at UCLA Medical Center. "It's one of the simplest and most effective ways to prevent gastrointestinal issues and respiratory infections."

What else is in this post?

  1. Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Wash Your Hands Frequently
  2. Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Skip the Plane's Recirculated Air
  3. Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Sanitize Your Space
  4. Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Pack Immune-Boosting Snacks
  5. Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Get Plenty of Rest
  6. Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Skip the Ice Cubes
  7. Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Bring Your Own Water Bottle
  8. Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Limit Alcohol Consumption
  9. Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Research Local Viruses

Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Skip the Plane's Recirculated Air

The air you breathe on an airplane may do more harm than good. Commercial aircraft have extremely effective air filtration systems - when they're used properly. According to the International Air Transport Association, these systems filter out 99.97% of viruses and bacteria. However, some airlines turn off this filtration completely during flight to save on fuel costs. Even among airlines that keep it on, the amount of fresh outside air can be as low as 10%.

What does this mean for travelers? You may be breathing the same stale air that hundreds of other passengers have exhaled for hours on end. This recirculated air could contain infectious respiratory droplets or airborne illnesses.

In fact, a 2018 study found that sitting within two rows of someone with a respiratory infection makes you up to 80% more likely to catch it. The risk is lowest in window seats since you're only exposed to one side's air. Aisle seats have the highest contagion rates.
Longer flights also increase your odds of getting sick from poor cabin air. One passenger infected with influenza can disseminate the virus throughout the ventilation system within just 75 minutes. This effect is amplified the longer you're cooped up breathing recirculated air.

Some health experts actually recommend wearing an N95 mask on flights for protection. While this seems extreme, there have been cases of onboard disease transmission, even outside of flu season.

In March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, multiple passengers contracted COVID-19 while aboard evacuation flights from Wuhan, China. Why? The lack of ventilation and continued recirculation of air carrying viral droplets.

Airlines could also reduce contaminants by installing HEPA air filters on all aircraft. These remove 99.97% of particles from recirculated air. Currently they're only mandatory on planes that fly to and from China.

Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Sanitize Your Space

When settling into your hotel room, plane seat, rental car or other travel spaces, disinfecting surfaces is crucial to an illness-free trip. According to microbiologist Charles Gerba, the average hotel room contains over 112,000 contaminants like bacteria and viruses! These can lurk anywhere from light switches and TV remotes to bathroom sinks and shower floors. Germs spread rapidly when multiple travelers pass through the same space.
A study published in BMC Infectious Diseases found methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) present in over 6% of hotel rooms. Traces were found on furniture, bathroom fixtures and even bed linens that appeared clean. Another investigation by the American Society of Microbiology isolated rhinovirus and influenza virus on hard surfaces in hotel rooms previously occupied by sick guests. Without proper cleaning, these stubborn germs remain for 24 hours or longer until removed.

Travelers should sanitize using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered disinfectants against SARS-CoV-2 like Lysol or Clorox. "I always pack disinfecting wipes in my carry-on and meticulously wipe down my seat area before settling in," says Alicia D., avid budget traveler. She recommends wiping armrests, seat belts, tray tables, air vents and even the back of the seat in front of you. Hand sanitizer alone won't remove all germs.

In your hotel, thoroughly wipe down "high-touch" areas like light switches, TV/AC remotes, phones, clocks, bathroom surfaces and more. Wash glasses/cups - even unused ones - as housekeeping may have missed spots when cleaning. Use your own disinfectant wipes, not provided ones which may have decreased pathogen-killing efficacy when dried out.

"I'll even disinfect a hotel bed comforter before lying down since you never know how well it was washed," says GermophobeTravels blog author Jeanne R. If concerned, remove decorative pillows and keep room surfaces clutter-free for easier cleaning.
Rental cars similarly need TLC before hitting the road. Disinfect the steering wheel, gear shift, dashboard, door handles (interior and exterior), seat belts, radio and climate control buttons. Also wipe down seat surfaces, including the back and bottom. Child car seats and toys should also be sanitized before use.

Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Pack Immune-Boosting Snacks

What we eat can have a powerful impact on our immune system - for better or worse. When traveling, many of us indulge in treats and quick snacks that satisfy cravings but provide little nutritional value. However, when trying to stay healthy on vacation, packing your own immune-boosting snacks is a smart move. These portable foods deliver key vitamins, minerals and nutrients to keep your body's defenses strong against germs.
Vitamin C is essential for immune system functioning. It increases production and activity of white blood cells that attack pathogens. Snacks rich in vitamin C like oranges, grapefruit and kiwis give an immunity boost and travel well. Dried fruit options like mango, pineapple and cherries also pack a juicy punch. Don't forget to enjoy a little lime or lemon with your in-flight beverage too!

Zinc aids cell growth and communication between immune cells. It helps fight viruses and bacteria trying to invade your system. Packed full of zinc, nuts and seeds make satisfying high-protein snacks. Almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds and nut mixes travel easily. Add raisins for a touch of sweetness.
Probiotics support gut health, which is tied closely to our immune response. Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut contain probiotics to keep your microbiome balanced. Look for individual packs of yogurt and shelf-stable probiotic supplements too. A healthy gut means fewer digestive issues on the road.

Don't forget your green veggies! Leafy greens provide vitamin C, beta carotene, fiber and antioxidants. While fresh greens don't travel well, you can bring dried seaweed snacks, kale chips, dehydrated veggie packets and powdered greens to stir into water. These provide a boost of plant nutrients and immune-strengthening compounds.

"I always pack baggies of unsalted almonds, dried seaweed and oranges to nibble whenever hunger strikes," says Alicia D. She finds the mini-meals give her an immunity boost over candy bars or pretzels.

Neil O., a frequent business traveler, swears by hydrating snacks like snap peas, blueberries and clementines. "The vitamin C and antioxidants keep me going. I arrive healthier without getting sick."

The most immune-supportive proteins include fish, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds. Jerky, hard-boiled eggs and tuna packs are portable sources. Trail mixes with nuts, seeds and dried fruit are tasty and energizing.

Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Get Plenty of Rest

When traveling, getting adequate sleep is crucial to keeping your immune system in top shape. Sleep powers up our body's defenses and helps fight off infection. However, between jet lag, noisy hotels and early flights, many vacations turn into short-term insomnia. Travelers who regularly skimp on sleep open themselves up to catching colds and other bugs much easier.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Unfortunately, the average American gets just 6.8 hours according to CDC data. While you may thrive on less sleep at home, experts recommend getting extra rest while traveling to compensate for disruptions. The physical stress of jet lag, time changes and new environments taxes your reserves. Recharging with sufficient sleep keeps immunity strong.
Sleep scientist Dr. Rafael Pelayo notes that just one or two nights of shortened sleep reduces killer cell activity that fights viruses. Catching up on sleep afterwards only provides a minimal boost. Maintaining consistently healthy sleep is key. This means setting a proper "sleep schedule" based on your new time zone when traveling across multiple time zones.

Alicia D, who flies from LA to Europe several times per year, stresses the importance of rest. "No matter how tempting the nightlife is, I make sure to get 8 hours of sleep after arriving. Otherwise, I'll feel run down halfway through my trip". She prepares by taking melatonin and using a sleep mask and ear plugs to doze off easily. Waking up naturally and avoiding alarms helps too.
For red-eye flights, try your best to sleep onboard so you'll be less affected by jet lag. Use a neck pillow, blanket, and noise-canceling headphones to get comfortable. Some travelers take over-the-counter sleep aids to doze, but discuss risks with your doctor first.

Booking a hotel or rental apartment by the airport the night before an early departure allows you to maximize rest too. This avoids a potentially stressful commute in traffic or on public transit when already short on sleep.

Once settled into a new time zone, maintain a consistent sleep and wake time to sync your circadian rhythm. Limit alcohol and caffeine, which can disrupt sleep cycles. Make sure your room is cool, dark and quiet. A white noise machine or app with soothing ambient sounds can mask unfamiliar nighttime disruptions.
"I never underestimate the power of a good night's sleep while traveling," says Neil O. "Without those 7-8 hours, my immunity really suffers and I get run down fast". He keeps blackout curtains and melatonin on hand to combat jet lag's toll on sleep.

Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Skip the Ice Cubes

Ice cubes seem innocent enough, but they can actually be a hotbed for germs when you're traveling. Freezing water does not kill bacteria and viruses - it only puts them into hibernation until the ice melts. Then they become active again in your drink! Double whammy if the ice was made from unclean water, which is common in regions with poor sanitation.

According to microbiology experts, ice cubes are a top way travelers contract hepatitis A, E. coli, norovirus and other illnesses abroad. A CDC analysis found that ice was the cause of almost 1 in 5 outbreaks linked to contaminated food and water from 2003-2012. You may not give ice a second thought at home, but while traveling, it pays to be prudent.
"I avoided ice completely when backpacking through rural Vietnam and Cambodia," says budget traveler Courtney S. She only drank hot tea or canned/bottled beverages, never cold ones with ice. "I wasn't going to risk getting sick from water that hadn't been boiled or filtered."

Even at high-end resorts in Mexico, the Caribbean and elsewhere, travelers have gotten sick from hotel ice made with unpurified local water. In 2015, 49 out of 67 tourists contracted Legionnaire's disease from contaminated ice at a luxury Dominican Republic resort.

When flying, you may want to pass on that in-flight cocktail with ice too. Most airlines use potable water systems and filtration to service their flights, but problems still occur. In 2019, industrial cleaning chemicals inadvertently entered drinking water tanks on some United flights, resulting in passenger illnesses. Not worth the gamble.
If you want chilled drinks while traveling, use bottled or canned beverages instead of ice cubes. Or freeze a water bottle and place that in your beverage to cool it down safely.
"When I really want an icy cocktail, I clean out the hotel ice bucket with soap, rinse it well with bottled water, then add my own purchased bag of ice," says frequent Caribbean traveler Michael R. This prevents any bacteria from prior guests' leftovers.

Some travelers bring a small insulated cooler bag with pre-made ice packs or freeze water bottles to use in place of local ice. This guarantees safety and avoids germy ice machines too. Others boil tap water then freeze it for "clean" ice.

Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Bring Your Own Water Bottle

Unsafe water takes a toll on many travelers' health. In fact, contaminated drinking water is the number one cause of illness in people visiting developing regions abroad. Sadly, even five-star resorts can have water quality issues. That's why bringing your own reusable water bottle and filtering water yourself is a smart safeguard.

Carrying a refillable bottle allows you to control what goes in it. Fill up only from purified or boiled water sources to limit exposure to bacteria like E. coli and parasites like Giardia. No mystery liquids of questionable origins, unlike the drinking glasses in your hotel room.
A high-quality water bottle also prevents dehydration in dry climates or on long transit days. "When touring the Mayan ruins in 40°C heat, my water bottle was as essential as my hat and sunscreen," recalls Susan R. She filled up from jugs of bottled water at their lodge to stay hydrated all day.

Collapsible soft bottles easily fit in your daypack or purse when space is tight. Try the popular Platypus brand or other lightweight BPA-free plastic bottles. Look for at least a liter (34 oz) capacity. A wide mouth or straw lid makes refilling easier.

Stainless steel bottles like Hydro Flask and Klean Kanteen keep contents cold for hours, an advantage in sweltering destinations. They withstand plenty of wear too. "I've used my dented Klean Kanteen on six continents now. Still going strong," declares round-the-world traveler Darren K.
Filtering your own water is also safer than drinking what others provide. Waterborne pathogens cause half a million deaths annually, so it pays to be prepared. Portable filters like LifeStraw and Grayl remove 99.9% of bacteria, protozoa and even viruses from sketchy water sources.

When driving between cities, travelers should carry bottled water for emergencies. If your rental car breaks down in the desert, that bottle could save your life. Some road warriors use water bladders like Camelbak to sip hands-free.

Frequent flyer Neil O. prepares his own water bottle at airports post-security. "I'll choose a Starbucks over the plane. Their water's filtered and cold. Way better than what's on board." He fills his bottle right before boarding.

Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Limit Alcohol Consumption

While it's tempting to indulge in cocktails, wine and beer on vacation, alcohol actually diminishes your body's immune defenses. Most travelers don't realize how much drinking impacts their susceptibility to viruses, bacteria and jet lag's exhausting effects. Knowing how alcohol weakens your system can help motivate smarter choices.
"After nearly every evening spent bar-hopping on trips, I'd wake up fatigued with a scratchy throat or stuffy nose," admits Timothy W., an avid backpacker. He assumed it was just jet lag or dry airplane air until noticing the pattern. "I finally connected the dots that drinking heavily was the real culprit making me feel rundown."

Alcohol suppresses immune cells and cytokine production needed to attack pathogens and infected cells. Studies show even small amounts of alcohol significantly reduce lymphocyte numbers - white blood cells critical for immunity. Just a couple drinks can inhibit your body's ability to fight infection for up to 24 hours afterwards.

Frequent urination caused by alcohol also leads to dehydration, making the mucous membranes in your nose and throat dry. This greatly increases susceptibility to viruses entering respiratory pathways. Alcohol also irritates these membranes, which can promote bacterial growth. No wonder that scratchy "traveler's throat" often follows a vacation of indulgent cocktails or all-inclusive margaritas.
Crossing time zones fatigues the body as it struggles to adjust to sudden day/night reversals. Alcohol exacerbates jet lag's effects by further disrupting circadian rhythms and sleep cycles. After a long flight, a nightcap may help you doze off initially, but leads to fractured sleep later. You'll wake feeling groggier than if you'd abstained.

When partaking in drinks, go slowly and alternate with water to stay hydrated. Pace yourself and know your personal limits to avoid hangover headaches, nausea or fatigue making you miserable. Party smarter by having a snack first so alcohol doesn't hit your system as strongly.

"I still enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or a fun cocktail, but I'm mindful to not overdo it anymore," Timothy says. "Moderation prevents that worn-out sick feeling that ruined the start of my trips. I feel healthier without binge drinking."

Keep in mind that alcohol impacts you more at higher altitudes too. Airlines serve alcohol freely, but resist overindulging. Higher altitude equals less oxygen reaching the brain, so alcohol's effects intensify. Drink water or juice instead of potent cocktails to avoid severe dehydration or nausea.

Germ-Free Holiday: 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling This Season - Research Local Viruses

Before globetrotting, it's wise to investigate which bugs are circulating at your destination. Learning local health risks allows you to take appropriate precautions and pack proper medications. As seasoned traveler Darren K. puts it, "I research not just the top attractions, but the top viruses and health hazards too. It only takes a few minutes but makes a huge difference."

The CDC website provides an alphabetical list of destinations with associated diseases present. This covers everything from altitude sickness in Nepal to Zika in Samoa. You can view country-specific advice and see if any recent outbreaks or epidemics have occurred. Monitoring this info pre-trip keeps you informed.

Travel forums and groups are also useful crowdsourced resources. Fellow travelers often share first-hand health experiences and tips for staying well. Check for recent posts about widespread illnesses or symptoms noticed during your destination's peak season. Assess ifRAT and malaria meds are recommended based on other travelers' accounts.

Google Search lets you investigate current disease levels too. Simply enter "health risks [location]" or "what diseases are common in [location]". Reputable health organizations like the WHO and Cleveland Clinic will appear at the top. For example, searching "Costa Rica health risks" surfaces articles on dengue fever, traveler's diarrhea, and mosquito hazards - all good to know before you go.
Some shifty corners of the internet share unreliable medical rumors, so stick to major health websites. Travel clinic staff can also advise on likely local viruses and any recent spikes or new developments not yet widely reported online. Based on your personal medical history, they'll recommend vaccines and preventative medication tailored specifically for you.
When Susan R. visited Belize, she researched Leptospirosis cases on the rise due to recent flooding. She packed waterproof boots to prevent the bacterial infection transmitted by animal urine in contaminated water.

Neil O. reviews his MyMedicine travel health checklist before each trip, which outlines vaccines he's had and when boosters are due. "It prompts me to get any missing shots well in advance, so I'm protected from viruses specific to the region," he explains.

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