There’s no bigger issue with regards to travel health than how to avoid getting sick when traveling.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been due to go off travelling, and I’ve got everything ready, and feeling fabulous. Then, two days before go-time, I go down with a rather heavy cold, and do my utmost to get rid of it. You know the drill: in bed resting, sucking cough sweets, taking various noxious cough syrups, and generally fretting as you don’t really want to be taking bottles of medicine with you. You vow that those germs are going to get their asses kicked.
But it’s got me to thinking: if you’re ill whilst abroad, what do you do? How to avoid getting sick while traveling? And what do you do if it does happen?
Identifying factors on how to avoid getting sick while traveling
There’s a variety of factors which can make you ill whilst you’re travelling, from locally-found diseases to different foods, to bacteria on the plane. Even the stresses of everyday life coming to a sudden stop can upset your system, which is used to running on adrenaline. Yes, even just relaxing can make you ill, as bizarre as it sounds.
Pre-travel anxiety is also a definite factor; it can give you an upset stomach which’ll make you feel like you can’t possibly travel. That feeds back into your anxiety, and creates a savage, never-ending loop of feeling like crap. If that’s something you specifically deal with, then check out my guide to making a pre-travel anxiety kit, which’ll help considerably!
This has happened to me a few times, and to be honest, I think it’s been one of the triggers for the anxiety I always get a few days before I travel. On a trip to Malta, I was struck down by eye infections and gastric flu, neither of which were particularly fun. Doctors had to be summoned to the hotel. It gave me a permanent fear of being ill abroad.
On the bright side, it gave me a survival instinct for fending off germs before they could ruin my trip, and a sense of caution which is no fun if used too often (who wants to go travelling and not sample the local food?), but if used judiciously, can keep potential problems at bay. So here’s a few tips I’ve collated over the years!
Before You Go
Yup, it’s never too early to prepare for those pesky trip-spoiling germs. Indeed, the first step can be taken as soon as you book your trip…
1. Buy insurance.
Seriously, people, don’t travel without it. Especially as it’s so easy to do these days; a few clicks on the internet, and you’re done and covered. Obviously if you’re doing a trip somewhere far-flung and exotic, this is going to be more of a priority, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you won’t need it for a short haul. My mother was due to travel this year and was too ill on the day – she didn’t even make it to the airport. She claimed on her travel insurance, and got almost the entire cost of the trip back. Don’t skip this step, ever.
World Nomads is my preferred insurance provider, especially if you’re going long-haul, or on an extended journey – use this nifty widget to see how little peace of mind will cost you!
2. Get your vaccinations.
Again, this is not a step to be skipped, and it’s so easy to do – a two-second Google search will tell you which vaccinations you’ll need for your chosen destination. Make sure that you book your appointment to have them done in plenty of time; some vaccinations will need a second course of jabs, and others need to be administered up to 12 weeks before you travel. This is something you need to research and have organised as soon as possible.
Have a check of Nomad Travel’s vaccinations page to see which ones you need!
3. Buy any medications you think you might need.
Get your essentials: any medications you regularly use, hayfever tablets, nasal mists, hand sanitizer, and the undisputed king of travel medications – Imodium. As a person with social anxiety, I fully understand that going into a chemist and buying a pack of Imodium can feel somewhat embarrassing. However, this is nothing compared to how you’re going to feel if you need the Imodium whilst you’re away, and you don’t have it.
Think about that image for a moment. Yeah, I’m suddenly good with queuing up for it, too.
One of the best ways to avoid getting sick while traveling is simply to prepare your medications and possible treatments in advance.
4. Eat well before you leave.
Don’t get yourself half-ill before you even leave; keep your body boosted by eating well, and sleeping well. If you have vitamin supplements, keep taking them! Now isn’t the time to throw them into your suitcase and forget about them. If you want to avoid getting sick while traveling, then you’re better off sacrificing the microwave pizzas for a while (I know they’re so good; I know…).
During The Flight
You’ve made it to the day of departure, and you’re bug-free! Time to throw caution to the wind, right?!
Uh, no. If you want to maximize your chances of keeping fit and well, and avoid getting sick while traveling, there’s even some steps you can take during your flight.
1. Sit in the middle of the plane.
Sure, sometimes you don’t get a choice with this. But if you suffer with motion sickness, you’re going to want to sit in the middle. You feel the sickness a lot more if you’re at the front or the back, where the motion of the plane is so much more noticeable. If you can choose your seat by logging on to the airline’s website a week ahead of your flight, or if you just have to sprint for it, aim for the middle.
2. Drink water.
Having an alcoholic drink during the flight is fun, right? It may well be (and some anxious travellers swear by a drink or two to relax during the flight), but this really isn’t something you want to do. Alcohol and coffee both dehydrate you, especially on a plane. Dehydrating will lead to all kinds of unpleasantness by itself, but add that dehydration is a major factor in jetlag, and you really, really are better off just sticking to water.
There’s better ways than alcohol for getting through a flight, even if you’re terrified (check out my review of the SkyGuru app, which has almost totally beaten my fear of flying!), and it’s definitely one of the very best ways to avoid getting sick while traveling. It’s worth the sacrifice!
3. Use a nasal mist.
Remember that nasal mist I mentioned above? Here’s where you want to use it. The air in your average plane is extremely dry, thanks to the recirculated air system, and your nose will obligingly dry out too. This isn’t good for you though; your respiratory system works far better when there’s a bit of moisture or mucus (I know; sorry) in your nose, happily catching all the germs that the air system is swirling around. A nasal mist will artificially provide this for you until you’re back on the ground.
4. Use hand sanitizer.
As I’ve written before, as good a job as the plane cleaning crews do, they simply don’t have time to do much more than the bare minimum most of the time. And as someone who has witnessed people changing their babies’ dirty diapers on the fold-down table (when there’s a perfectly good toilet a few meters away, may I add), you can bet that I’ll be using a hand sanitizing gel. As much as I want to avoid getting sick while traveling, I’m even more keen to avoid e. coli, thx.
Whilst You’re Away
You’ve made it to your destination! But nope, it’s still not time to completely let your guard down. This is where you start to maintain a balance between having fun, and being careful. And that may not sound terribly carefree, but it’s pretty simple to look after your health, especially in the first few days. Getting into good habits in the early days of your trip will stand you in good stead, and help you to avoid getting sick while traveling.
1. Go easy on the food at first.
Yes, I realize that the authentic super-spicy curry looks absolutely delicious, and you’ve just got off the plane and you’re ready to eat something the size of a horse. But it’s still going to be there tomorrow – at first, you’re better off sticking to something a bit plainer and at a moderate size, until your system has properly recovered from the strain of the journey, and adapted to all the new ingredients of the local food. Don’t rush things, otherwise you’ll be needing that Imodium sooner than you thought.
2. Be careful with the water, but keep hydrated.
You don’t quite have to go to Survivor-type lengths of building a camp fire and boiling the water over it (your hostel/hotel owner will probably be upset about this, and as much as you’d probably like to vote out that snoring guy at tribal council, it’s not going to happen), but as I’m sure you’re already aware, drinking the local water can sometimes be a bit dodgy for your unaccustomed system. So bottled water is your friend, but you should also be aware of other things that water is being used for. Avoid salads washed in water – indeed, unless it contains items that have been peeled, travelling is the ideal time to be a salad-dodger (can’t peel it? Don’t eat it). Sauces can also often be made with large amounts of the local aqua; until you’re acclimatized, it might be better not to risk it. The role of water in how to avoid getting sick while traveling really can’t be overstated.
3. Take precautions against mosquitoes.
Aside from mosquito nets and insect repellent, there’s other things you can do to minimize your chances of being nibbled by a mosquito. Did you know that mosquitoes are more likely to bite you if you’re hot and sweaty? Or that your chances of getting an unwelcome visitor during the night are also increased by drinking alcohol? Keeping cool and clean, and being a bit more moderate with the drinks, are both advisable if you know that you’re going to be in an area where the risk of mosquito-transmitted illnesses is higher.
4. Use busy restaurants.
Aside from being good advice in general (go where the locals go!), you’re also looking after your health by going to a busy restaurant rather than that tempting, quiet one. The reason is simple: in a quiet restaurant, the food is more likely to have been sitting around for longer, or been reheated. In a busy one, that food is going straight from the cooker to your table. And even better than a busy restaurant is street food: most of the time, that’s being cooked to order right in front of you, as fresh as you can get. Pro travelers nimbly avoid getting sick while traveling by following this exact, and rather simple, rule.
But what happens if I still get sick?
Unfortunately, you can take all the precautions you can, and still fail to avoid getting sick while traveling (as I was once by a rogue ice cream, which unbeknownst to me, had melted before being refrozen). So what can you do, if you do find yourself feeling ill far from home?
1. Everyday remedies.
When I was struck down with gastric flu in Malta, I had the tremendous good fortune of throwing up directly outside the shop of an extremely lovely Maltese lady (admittedly, this wasn’t very fortunate for her, but she was hospitality and lovingness personified, and wouldn’t hear my pleas to let me mop it up). She taught me the very basics of everyday remedies, with the words “whenever you feel sick, have something lemony”, before giving me a free bottle of lemonade and some lemon-flavored sweets. I love that woman, whoever she was, and I’m eternally grateful, because it really does work.
Lemonade is fantastic if you’re feeling sick or have an unsettled stomach. Coca-Cola, allowed to sit for a bit until the liquid goes flat, is great for stomach aches, as is anything peppermint-flavored. Honey works for coughs, and helps with hay fever. Put vinegar on gnat bites, and saliva on mosquito bites. There’s a lot of very basic complaints that you can help relieve with some quite simple measures.
2. Sleep it off.
Don’t feel bad about sacrificing a day of your trip in order to sleep off a bug. It’s much better that you lose a day in order to save the rest of your trip, rather than flog yourself onward and fall into exhaustion.
3. If it really starts taking a turn for the worse, seek medical advice.
Don’t let it get too bad – if you think it’s going to be something serious, or you just know within yourself that this is something you need medical treatment for, get your hostel/hotel to ring a doctor who speaks your language, or contact your insurance provider and ask them to give you the name and number of a recommended doctor in the area. Don’t be embarrassed; don’t put it off. This happens all the time; you’re definitely not the first person this will have happened to in your accommodation. And remember that you’re not alone – hotel staff can be wonderful, as can your fellow travelers in a hostel. You’ll be well looked after, and back on your feet in no time!
I think the important thing to remember, especially for those of us who do get anxious about it, is that illness on the road is not the impossible situation that it can seem to be. You won’t be stranded, you will be looked after. Generally, the worst you’re going to get is a bug or a sniffle, and it’s easily solvable. Relax, enjoy yourself, and watch those bugs melt away. As I’m hoping mine will! *sniffle sniffle*
Have you got any tips on how to avoid getting sick while traveling, or any everyday remedies? Feel free to share them in the comments!
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