How to Stay Healthy While Traveling

9 tips to help you stay healthy during your vacation.

Illustration of airplanes crossing the globe
Illustration of airplanes crossing the globe

As the world starts to open back up, many people are packing their bags this spring for the first time in two years. Staying healthy while on vacation remains a big priority, especially amid COVID-19.

Health Matters asked Dr. Ole Vielemeyer, medical director of Infectious Disease Associates & Travel Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and associate professor of Clinical Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, for his top tips on how to stay healthy while traveling whether you’re staying close to home or traveling internationally.

1. Avoid aisle seats on planes. You may want to be more selective when it comes to booking your seat on a plane. Yes, you can get up easily. But not only will you get less rest when your neighbor makes you get up, but you also might be exposed to more germs. According to a 2008 investigation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that passengers sitting in aisle seats of a plane were more likely to be exposed to an outbreak virus. One likely reason is that people walking up and down the aisle — many coming back from the bathroom — have a tendency to grab on to the top of the aisle seat for support, thereby potentially spreading germs.

While the air on airplanes is recirculated and practically germ-free (it has to pass through fine filters that prevent recirculation of bacteria and viruses), it is, however, very dry, so stay well-hydrated.

2. Nervous flyer? Practice deep breathing. If you become anxious on flights, a simple technique is to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, counting to five with each inhale and exhale. Slowly deepen each breath, working up to counting to 10, and continuing until you feel your body relax. You could also try meditating. If you’re prone to losing sleep over an upcoming flight, or have a history of panic attacks midair, talk with your doctor or mental health provider about the possibility of anti-anxiety medication when traveling.

3. Get plenty of sleep. A 2015 study showed how critical sleep is when it comes to staying healthy, especially if you’re crossing time zones, as a disruption to a person’s circadian rhythm can compromise their immune system. Try this: A week prior to your trip, gradually shift your bedtime and waking times to match or at least approach that of your destination. If that’s not possible, eat only a light meal during your flight, stay well-hydrated, and avoid alcohol and caffeine. When you land, spend some time outside if you can — sun exposure can help you adjust to the new time zone. Just be sure to wear sunscreen!

4. Don’t forget a first-aid kit. It’s helpful to pack some simple first-aid supplies while traveling, especially if you’re vacationing with kids. Your kit probably should include acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain or fever, DEET-containing insect repellent, antibacterial wipes or gels, a motion sickness remedy, an anti-diarrheal like Pepto-Bismol or Imodium, adhesive bandages, disinfectant, and an antibiotic ointment like Neosporin. And if you’re bringing personal medication, pack it in your carry-on rather than checked luggage, just in case your bags are lost in transit.

5. Hydrate throughout your vacation. It’s easy to lose track of how much water you’re actually drinking when sightseeing or enjoying poolside cocktails. Keep a water bottle with you wherever you go, and get a good head start to the day by drinking two full glasses of water upon waking up or with breakfast.

Portrait of Dr. Ole Vielemeyer, infectious disease specialist who gives tips on how to stay healthy while traveling.

Dr. Ole Vielemeyer

6. Watch what you eat and drink. If you’re traveling to a less-developed country, be sure to consume foods that are prepared properly. For example: Only eat meat that is thoroughly cooked and served steaming hot, and steer clear of raw vegetables, dairy products sold by small independent vendors, and any dairy products that may have been left out in the sun. Also be aware that in some countries, tap water may not be safe to drink, so bottled water is a safer bet. Ice cubes are often a hidden culprit, so avoid those too.

While you may want to try every dish and drink during every meal while on vacation, especially in an all-inclusive-resort, overindulging can lead to sluggishness and waste valuable vacation time. So, please do enjoy yourself, but in moderation and think “quality over quantity.”

7. Stay active. You may think that your ideal vacation should consist of lying on the beach all day, but you will actually feel better and eventually more rested if you incorporate physical activity into your day. Whether that means taking advantage of a hotel gym, exploring the local sights by walking or riding a bike instead of taking cabs, or even doing some pushups, jumping jacks, or yoga in your room, it’s easy to add regular cardio while you’re away. Exercise bolsters the immune system and releases feel-good endorphins.

8. Protect your skin. You don’t want a painful sunburn putting a damper on your trip. Pack a hat and an umbrella and use sunscreen with an SPF of 30+ to protect your skin from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. While the sunburn will go away, the increased risk of skin cancer remains, so take this protection seriously.

9. Update your vaccinations. First and foremost, make sure get your COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots. If traveling to areas that pose a risk of tropical diseases, be sure to visit a travel medicine expert well in advance of your trip to receive the appropriate vaccinations. Learn more here.

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