By Bonnie Darves
Nearly two years ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to surge, traveling for fun was pretty much out of the question. But now, as the world cautiously opens back up, more and more people are becoming comfortable with booking a flight again—and let’s be real, we all deserve to travel.
But you probably also want to avoid getting sick, even with a good ol’ fashioned common cold. Being stuck under the covers while your family enjoys holiday activities or your travel buddies have fun exploring a new city isn’t how anyone wants to spend their time away. And any flu-like symptoms can be downright frightening, because COVID-19 is still a very real threat, especially if you’re not vaccinated.
However, if you find yourself scheduling a trip, there are a few simple steps you can take to stay healthy on your journey. There’s no surefire way to avoid getting sick, but SELF spoke to several experts about the things you can do to minimize your risk. All of them agree on one key point: A good sickness-prevention strategy begins before you leave town!
1. Be prepared to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines.
Let’s get to the elephant in the room first. As highly infectious coronavirus variants continue to spread, you may be worried about getting sick with COVID-19, even if you’re vaccinated. That’s why it’s so important to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) safety guidelines1 if you have a trip planned. That includes waiting to travel until you’re fully vaccinated—ideally two weeks after your final dose, since it takes 14 days for your body to build up a strong immune response2. (If you’re eligible for a booster dose, ask your doc about that before you leave too.)
It’s also crucial to wear a face mask in public settings, and of course, while you’re en route on public transportation, such as planes, buses, and trains, and wherever else it’s required. When possible, try to maintain the recommended six-foot distance between yourself and those around you, especially in indoor settings where there’s less airflow. “Masks are a simple and effective barrier to help prevent your respiratory droplets from reaching others,” Cindy Friedman, M.D., chief of the CDC’s Travelers’ Health Branch, tells SELF. Masks also help prevent other people’s droplets from reaching you.
It’s also a good idea to check the prevalence of COVID-19 cases at your destination, as well as its local guidelines and whether you need to get a COVID-19 test before traveling. The CDC site has up-to-date case rates for each U.S. county and recommendations on whether or not a destination is considered high-risk if you’re traveling outside of the country. (Generally, places that have at least 100 new cases per 100,000 people are considered high-risk3.) And finally, be sure to pack plenty of back-up masks and hand sanitizer so you don’t worry about running out.
2. Get enough sleep before (and during) your trip.
One reason people get sick on vacation is because they run themselves ragged in the week before they leave. (You know, with a miles-long to-do list or just generalized fretting about getting away.) The resulting stress, in turn, can affect your immune system, which makes it harder for your body to fight off any nasty pathogens you might encounter, according to Carolyn Fernandes, M.D., an infectious diseases physician at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who runs the UPMC Travel Health Clinic.
“What I often tell travelers is that sometimes we work so hard rushing around and getting ready to leave that we don’t get enough sleep, which makes us more susceptible to getting sick,” Dr. Fernandes tells SELF. When you’re sleep deprived, your body makes fewer cytokines (proteins that help your cells communicate so your immune system functions well) and certain antibodies that help fight infection or counter stress, according to the Mayo Clinic4. Everyone has different sleep needs, but generally, most adults benefit from at least seven to nine hours of shut-eye each night, according to the National Sleep Foundation5.
If your vacation involves jetting across several time zones, transitioning your sleep schedule to your destination’s time zone may be easier to adopt than suddenly going to bed three hours earlier the day you arrive. “Start that process ahead of time,” Paul Pottinger, M.D., director of the University of Washington Medical Center Tropical Medicine & Infectious Diseases Clinic in Seattle, tells SELF. “If you’re crossing three time zones, for example, try to adjust your sleep schedule by one time zone per day.” For instance, if you’re flying to New York from San Francisco, then you might go to bed one hour earlier than usual three nights before you leave, and two hours earlier the next night, if your schedule allows it. (Of course, this strategy probably won’t help much or be doable if you’re skipping over six time zones, Dr. Pottinger says.)
During your trip, you might be tempted to skimp on sleep to make the most of your time away, but maintaining good sleep habits—even if that sounds a bit boring—is really important, according to Nicole Van Groningen, M.D., an internist and hospitalist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. If you can, aim to sleep your normal amount each night and go to bed and wake up around the same time every day of your trip. If you have jet lag and really can’t get decent shut-eye, you may want to consider taking low-dose melatonin (up to 3 milligrams), a hormone that your body produces naturally to make you feel sleepy, Dr. Van Groningen suggests. (Just a note: If you have a health condition or take any other medications or supplements, it’s always safest to talk to your doctor before adding in something else.)
3. Stay hydrated—especially when you’re flying.
In addition to getting enough sleep, it’s also important to preemptively hydrate before traveling, and to keep up your water intake throughout your trip. First, drinking enough water can help prevent dehydration, which can make you feel tired and dizzy.
As a major bonus, upping your fluids can help your body ward off germs by maintaining a moist environment in your throat and nasal passages via mucus production. “If you’re not hydrated enough, your cilia, the little hairs in your nose, can’t do their job because they dry out,” Dr. Fernandes says.
Mucus keeps those hairs nice and sticky so they can trap germs and dirt in your nose and keep them from getting to your lungs. You then expel these germs by coughing or sneezing, according to the British Society for Immunology6.
Staying hydrated is especially important when flying. “You should assume that just by sitting on the plane, you’re becoming dehydrated,” Dr. Pottinger says. That’s because the air inside planes can be really dry due to the higher altitude, even though airlines try to moderate humidity levels by injecting more moisture in the cabin air.
Everyone has different hydration needs, but typically getting roughly 2.7 liters (11 cups) to 3.7 liters (almost 16 cups) of water per day (including through your food and other drinks) is enough for most adults, according to The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences7.
In addition to drinking water during the flight, Dr. Pottinger suggests using a nasal saline solution to keep the inside of your nose moist. (That can be a bit tricky and awkward while wearing a mask, so you might want to do this privately before you board the plane.) This is where your face covering comes in handy again: “Wearing a mask actually keeps more moisture in your nose and mouth,” Dr. Pottinger says.
4. Be careful when eating and drinking to prevent foodborne illness.
Eating or drinking something a bit funky can give you a one-way ticket to your hotel bathroom. “Consuming contaminated food or drinks can cause traveler’s diarrhea and other diseases that can disrupt your travel,” Dr. Friedman says.
If you’re unsure about certain meals, she recommends trying to stick to foods that have been fully cooked and are served hot, since raw and undercooked foods have a higher risk of carrying potentially harmful pathogens. One thing you’ll want to watch out for are vendors that seem to leave foods out unrefrigerated. “Be especially careful about items containing dairy products, such as eggs and mayonnaise, which might have been left out,” says Dr. Van Groningen. “These are big ones for foodborne illness.”
If you’re traveling internationally in an area where you aren’t familiar with the food safety regulations, then you may want to avoid eating raw fruits and vegetables to be extra cautious, according to the CDC8. (You can visit the CDC Traveler’s Health page to check the food and water safety recommendations for international destinations.)
If you’re concerned about foodborne illness risks, you can research the rules and regulations with the local health department of your destination in the U.S. Finding out food safety laws can be a bit more difficult to do internationally, but a travel clinic associated with an academic institution, like the NYU Family Travel Medicine Center, may be able to provide helpful guidance.
If you’re traveling in an area where the CDC recommends avoiding drinking tap water, then it’s best to consume only bottled and sealed beverages to be safe. Be sure to check that the seals are intact to avoid possibly having any contaminated drinks, Dr. Friedman says. Another pro tip: Be mindful that you’re not plopping a few cubes of ice into the glass before drinking a beverage in these locations. “That ice was likely made with tap water,” Dr. Friedman says.
5. Wash or sanitize your hands frequently (and thoroughly).
Handwashing is a very simple, very effective way to avoid illness. “There’s a heightened awareness about handwashing now because of COVID, and that’s a good thing,” says Dr. Van Groningen.
In particular, washing your hands with soap and water (for at least 20 seconds, preferably!) after touching things that are used by many people, like handrails and door handles, is really important. Ideally, you want to make sure your hands are clean before touching your face, because germs can easily enter your body through your eyes, nose, or mouth.
As a general rule, you don’t need to clean your hands every single time you touch an object or surface, like when you’re shopping, provided you try to avoid touching your face. But it’s very important to wash your hands before eating, according to every expert we spoke to. Washing your hands may prevent about 30% of diarrhea-related illnesses and about 20% of respiratory infections, per the CDC9.
If you can’t use soap and water, opt for hand sanitizer in a pinch. “A bottle of Purell in your pocket goes a long way,” Dr. Pottinger says. Choose one that contains at least 60% alcohol for the best protection. (Oh, and skip the gloves—none of the experts we interviewed recommended using them because germs can still collect on the gloves.)
6. Pack essentials such as pain relievers, medications, and insect repellent.
Although no one leaves for vacation expecting to get sick, it can happen. That’s why the CDC recommends that your routine vaccinations (and any required or recommended for your destination) and tetanus shots are up to date before traveling.
You’ll also want to bring along any items that can help if you start to feel unwell, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, an antihistamine like Benadryl, and antidiarrheal medicines. Items that can prevent any annoying symptoms—like insect repellent, sunscreen, and your regular prescription medicines—will also help you feel your best.
“Sometimes we get lulled into thinking that we’ll find whatever we need wherever we travel, but especially in foreign destinations, that’s not always the case,” Dr. Fernandes says. So, just in case you do need to seek medical care while traveling, it’s worth carrying any documents you might need, such as insurance cards, immunization records, and your list of allergies if you have them.
Bottom line: Although there’s no surefire way to avoid getting sick, taking a few simple steps to prepare before your trip can help you stay as healthy as possible, so you can actually enjoy your time away without worry.