10 Tips to Stay Healthy While Traveling
Traveling: It’s something most of us dream about. Whether it’s to the theme park a few hours away, that famous monument on the other coast, or that history-soaked Old World city, traveling can open our minds, educate us, and spark our imaginations. We can bond with our loved ones over unique, shared experiences.
Whatever your travel duration and circumstances may be, there is much to be aware of and prepare for, even when traveling domestically. Read on for the best travel tips to stay healthy.
1. Know Before You Go
First, and this may seem a bit obvious, but be aware of your health before you think about traveling. Do you feel well and healthy enough to withstand the rigors of travel, including transportation, crowds, lines, etc.? To make sure you are ship shape, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your healthcare provider, especially if you or anyone you’re traveling with are pregnant or have a disability or chronic illness. Tell your provider where you’re going and for how long, what type of accommodations you have, and about any excursions you plan to take.
Next, buy travel insurance. It’s a great thing to add to your preparations. To make sure you are able to get the care you need wherever you are, find out if your health insurance covers medical care wherever you’re going. Travelers usually have to pay out of pocket for hospital and other medical expenses. Research travel advisories for your destination, and consider buying additional insurance that covers emergency evacuation if you will be traveling to remote or disaster-prone areas.
Finally, enrolling with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) ensures that the U.S. Department of State knows where you are if you have legal, medical, or financial difficulties while traveling. In the event of an emergency at home, STEP can also help friends and family contact you. On that note, leave copies of important documents (itinerary, contact information, credit cards, a list of your prescription medications, and passport) with someone at home in case you lose them during travel, and carry emergency contact information with you at all times. (1)
2. Banish Travel-Induced Illnesses
Have you ever experienced vertigo, nausea, or vomiting when traveling? You probably have motion sickness, a condition that results when the movement you see is different from what your inner ear senses. While motion sickness isn’t serious, it’s certainly unpleasant. There are medications that can help, but many of them make you sleepy. Try closing your eyes or focusing them on the horizon. Another trick is stimulating your senses as a distraction; try mint or lavender aromatherapy or sucking on hard candy. (2)
If you’re traveling by plane, you may experience jet lag. Your body’s internal clock is synced to your original time zone instead of your destination’s time zone, and the more time zones you cross, the more likely you are to experience jet lag. Jet lag can appear as daytime fatigue, an unwell feeling, difficulty staying alert, and gastrointestinal problems. You may be able to lessen these symptoms by adjusting your sleep schedule, staying hydrated, and eating smaller meals before travel. (3, 4)
Motion sickness and jet lag are generally not serious and will pass relatively quickly. There is one rare condition, however, that is cause for alarm because it can be fatal: deep vein thrombosis (DVT). This occurs when a blood clot forms in a large vein. Part of the clot may break off and travel to the lungs, causing what is called a pulmonary embolism, which is life threatening. DVT can happen in any mode of travel in which you have to sit for long periods or the space is cramped and you can’t move around. If you notice pain, tenderness, or swelling in your legs or your skin is warm to the touch, seek medical attention right away.
Out of 4,500 people who fly, one will get a DVT within eight weeks after travel. Obesity, extremes of height (shorter than 5’4″ and taller than 6’4″), oral contraceptive use, hormone replacement therapy, recent surgery, active cancer, and inherited blood clotting disorders also increase risk. (5)
To help ward off DVT, get up and walk around every two to three hours if you can. If you’re driving, schedule breaks to get out and walk a bit. If you can’t walk around, there are a couple of things you can do in your seat. First, wear properly fitted compression stockings (ask your healthcare provider); these keep pressure on your lower legs to improve circulation. Second, try these exercises:
- Raise and lower your heels while keeping your toes on the floor.
- Raise and lower your toes while keeping your heels on the floor.
- Tighten and release your leg muscles.
3. Hold the Fork
Before you dig into that exotic culinary delight you’ve been dying to try, pause a moment to think about its ingredients and method of preparation. Contaminated or improperly stored foods can cause diseases, not the least of which is traveler’s diarrhea, and seriously derail your plans. Here are some tips to stay healthy while enjoying the dishes of your destination:
- Hot food is generally safe because heat kills most bacteria. Be leery of food that has been sitting out or in a warmer; it could be contaminated by other patrons, or the temperature of the warmer may not be hot enough to kill germs. You want your hot dishes to be steaming.
- Dry, packaged foods like chips are also generally safe because bacteria requires moisture to grow. Unopened, factory-sealed foods are also safe.
- Avoid eating raw foods, like salsa and cut-up vegetables and fruits. Fruits and veggies may be safer to eat if you wash them thoroughly in bottled water. You can also clean produce using the portable Echo Clean™, which, without salt, produces chemical-free acid water from tap water. (When a cycle is run with salt, the Echo Clean™ produces both hypochlorous acid and sodium hypochlorite. Hypochlorous acid is safe to use on produce but sodium hypochlorite is a stronger, more bleach-like cleaner that is great for disinfecting bathrooms or kitchen counters but is not safe to use on food.)
- Street foods are fun to try, but use the cautions above, as street vendors may not be held to the same safety standards as restaurants.
- Avoid eating exotic meats that we don’t eat in the U.S., and generally avoid seafood, especially if it’s soaked in vinegar or other acidic liquids. (8)
4. Wetting Your Whistle
As far as drinks go, the following are usually safe: bottled or canned drinks that are sealed, steaming hot drinks, pasteurized drinks, and alcoholic beverages (beer and wine should be consumed from sealed bottles). Avoid fountain drinks and drinks made with fresh juices. It’s hard to judge the cleanliness of the fountain drink station or know whether the fruit was thoroughly washed before being juiced.
Depending on where you are, be very skeptical of tap water — and ice, since it’s often made with tap water. Use bottled water for drinking and brushing your teeth. If you’re suspicious of your tap water, bring it to a rolling boil for one minute. You may want to pack a small pot and a portable burner for this purpose. Disinfecting agents, such as iodine tablets or chlorine bleach, may also help. Alternatively, you can use tap water that is extremely hot to the touch, though it still may not be potable. (8, 9)
5. Don’t Bug Out
Before you hike to that zipline adventure, pitch that tent, or explore that pyramid in the jungle, take precautions against whatever creepy crawlies might be out there. Mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and flies can spread diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, Zika fever, dengue fever, chikungunya virus, and Lyme disease. While some cases are mild, these diseases can be severe and have lasting consequences. Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants and apply an Environmental Protection Agency-registered insect repellent after applying your sunscreen on any exposed skin. The insect repellent you choose should contain one of these ingredients (all of which are safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women):
- Picaridin (known as KBR 3023 and icaridin outside the U.S.)
- Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) (Do NOT use on children under 3)
- Para-menthane-diol (PMD) (Do NOT use on children under 3)
In sleeping areas, use mosquito netting that is long enough to be tucked under the mattress. Also cover strollers and baby carriers in mosquito netting. Treat clothing and gear with permethrin, which repels mosquitoes even through multiple washings (some mosquito nets come pretreated with this repellent).
It’s also important to guard against ticks, which can transmit a whole host of serious diseases, including anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Lyme disease. Carefully examine clothing, bedding, pets, and your body for ticks. Remove ticks embedded in skin with tweezers and disinfect the area. Wash your clothes in hot water and dry in your dryer for at least 10 minutes; this will kill any ticks that might be on them. (10, 11)
6. Weather It Well
If you’re not already aware, research what the typical climate is at your destination for the time of year you will be there. In hot climates, make sure you are well hydrated daily with plenty of non-alcoholic fluids. Wear loose, light layers and a hat and sunglasses, and don’t forget to apply sunblock and periodically reapply it. Most importantly, move to a cool place if you feel dizzy or nauseated, are sweating heavily, or have muscle cramps. These are signs of heat exhaustion, a condition that can quickly escalate into a heat stroke, which is a medical emergency. In either case, it’s best to call for help immediately, get to a cool place, and have someone apply cool, wet cloths to your skin.
In colder climates, wear warm layers, and protect yourself with gloves, a hat, and a scarf. Dressing for the cold is a bit of a balance, though; if you overdress and sweat, this can chill your body rapidly and cause you to lose heat. If you’re actively moving, remove layers of clothes if you feel too warm or begin to sweat. Also, don’t ignore shivering. This is a sign that your body is trying to heat itself up, and if it’s constant, you need to find shelter and get warm right away before hypothermia sets in. (12, 13, 14)
7. Bring Your Personal Pharmacy With You
Having prescription medications with you when you travel can be a tricky business if you’re traveling across international borders. Clearly, you can’t be without them, but you should be aware that other countries have their own regulations about which ones are legal or about how much of a given legal drug you may bring into the country. You may face stiff penalties or even jail time if you bring medications that aren’t allowed. Check with the foreign embassy of the country you will be visiting to make sure your medications are permitted. If they’re not, talk with your healthcare provider about alternatives or have him or her write a letter describing your condition(s) and the medication(s) you need.
Along these lines, if you have a MedicAlert bracelet, be sure to wear it at all times while you’re out and about. This will provide vital health information for those assisting you if needed. You could also prepare a card that lists your blood type, any chronic illnesses you have, medications you are taking, and your medicine and food allergies. Have this information available in your destination’s local language, if possible.
One thing to avoid is buying medications in a foreign country. Counterfeiting and substandard preparation are huge problems. If you must purchase medications on your trip, buy only from licensed pharmacies, and be sure to ask the pharmacist if the active ingredient in the medication you want to buy is the same as the one in your prescription. Never buy medicines from open markets, and avoid poor-quality or strange-looking packaging.
Pro-tip #1: Put your medications in your carry-on if you’re flying. If your suitcase is lost, you’ll still have them.
8. Pause for a Scrub
This is a bit obvious, but it bears repeating because it’s doubly important during travel: wash your hands. Did you know there’s a recommended procedure? While traveling, you might be excited to get where you’re going, but pause long enough to wash your hands properly, especially if you’ve been in public or touched animals or potentially unclean water. This means using soap and warm water and rubbing vigorously for at least 20 seconds. Did you know that you can use the Echo Clean™ to clean your hands? Run a cycle without adding salt to produce hypochlorous acid. Hypochlorous acid is a non-irritant, powerful disinfectant that can kill bacteria and germs without harming your skin.
If soap and water aren’t readily available, use hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol. Carry it with you! Cover all surfaces of your hands and wrists and rub until dry. (15, 17) This is one of the best tips to stay healthy during travel.
9. Road Safety
Few people think about the possibility of getting into a motor vehicle crash while traveling, but it’s certainly a valid concern. In fact, worldwide, 1.3 million people annually are killed and 20 to 50 million are injured in motor vehicle crashes. 85% of these casualties occur in low- or middle-income countries, and 25,000 of the deaths are among tourists. Nearly half of medical evacuations back to the United States are the result of a car crash, and a medical evacuation can cost upward of $100,000. Crashes in low-income countries can especially be serious or even fatal because emergency rescue services may not be readily available. Also, the excitement of travel may cause people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, like drink and drive. (18)
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to avoid trouble on the road no matter where you are in the world (18):
- Always wear your seat belt and put children in appropriate car seats
- Avoid riding on motorcycles
- Avoid traveling in developing countries at night
- Know local traffic laws if you plan to take the wheel yourself
- Don’t drink and drive
- Use only taxis that have seatbelts
- Avoid overcrowded buses and vans
- Be careful when crossing the street, especially in countries where people drive on the left
10. Swimming and Diving Safety
If you’re planning to engage in water activities, especially in moving water like rivers and the ocean, there are important points to research before you go. First, research local water rules, conditions, and currents that are typical for the time of year you will be there. Second, make sure you have properly maintained equipment (diving gear, etc.) and know how to use it. Always wear a life jacket, heed local beach warnings, and watch for and avoid rip currents, which appear as water moving quickly away from the shore. Finally, even if you’re a strong swimmer, never swim alone. (19)
Using these tips to stay healthy during travel will help ensure that your trip is all you hope it will be, whether it’s a successful meeting or conference or that dream vacation of a lifetime. All it takes is a little extra research and planning, and you’re well on your way.