Getting Sick When You Travel Sucks

Here are the things I do to stay healthy (or at least functional) when I travel.

Posted Oct 08, 2016

Two weeks ago, I was sitting in the airport in Madrid, Spain.  Last week, Sao Paulo, Brazil.  In fourteen hours, I’ll land in Auckland, New Zealand.  Then on to Sydney and then Jakarta, before the long flight home to Orlando.  But right now, I’m sitting in the Korea Airlines lounge, looking out at the monster planes on the Seoul airport tarmac.

And I feel terrible… I’m nursing a cold.  And a cough.  And a sinus headache.  Yes-sirree…traveling sure is glamorous.  And tomorrow I have two big-time business meetings and a major presentation.  Same for the three days that follow.

Whether travel is a major part of your professional lifestyle or just an occasional pathway to a family vacation, you just know as you pull your rolling bag past the coughing woman in 12C or stand in line at hotel reception behind the little kid with snot running down his face, you’re gonna get sick on this trip.

Not only are you trapped in planes, trains, and elevators with virus-filled respiratory droplets spewing forth in the coughs, sneezes, and words of others, you’re likely also tired (especially if you had to awaken early to get to the airport or have been moving from place to place for days).  Perhaps you’re a bit stressed about getting the entire family safely to your vacation destination, or about a big presentation you’ll be giving soon after touching down.  And especially if you’re traveling abroad, the difference in time zones can be the final nail in the proverbial coffin.  (For example, South Korea is fourteen hours ahead of my Florida home, a brutally difficult change for my body and psyche to navigate in the less than twenty-four hours before my first client meeting.)  Lack of sleep and stress are prime ingredients for suppressing your immune system, the system which serves to protect you from viruses, bacteria, and other foreign invaders.

I’ve previously shared the critical actions to take during actual air travel, including actions to prevent the formation of blood clots in your legs (which pose the threat of breaking away and floating into the lungs, where they block oxygen exchange).  And I’ve emphasized the importance of frequent hand washing while on that plane, train, or taxi.  Also the use of zinc supplements, which reduce the number of days and severity should you catch a cold while trapped in the flying canister (and which may even act to reduce your risk of catching a cold in the first place).

But protecting your health shouldn’t end once you get off that plane, disembark from that train, or hop out of that taxi…

Again, the basic infection avoidance rules that apply in your workplace, school, and at home apply before and after your plane, train, and taxi ride.  First of all, every chance you get, wash with plain soap and water.  While arguably less effective against certain germs, carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer is a reasonable alternative.  Remember, everything, EVERYTHING you touch in that plane, in that taxi, on that train, at that tourist mecca, in your hotel room, has all been touched by hundreds, even thousands of other hands over the past few days.  And wherever you wander, at all costs, avoid direct interaction with coughing, sneezing, or clearly ill people, as they represent a major threat to your fun vacation or successful business trip.  (That said, there is little evidence that donning a disposable surgical mask actually prevents you from getting sick when out in public).

Finally, whenever I travel, especially outside of the United States, I carry a number of medicines with me in my carry-on (where I can get to them at any time):

  • Ibuprofen (sold as Motrin®, Advil®, and under other names):  great for aching muscle and joints after a long day of sightseeing.
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol®):  excellent for headaches, sore throats, and low-grade fevers.
  • Cold & Flu Medicine (sold under many names; bring both non-drowsy daytime and sleep-assisting nighttime types):  I can’t tell you the number of meetings and sightseeing adventures that have been saved…
  • Loperamide (Imodium®):  when traveling outside the U.S., this amazing, over-the-counter anti-diarrheal has allowed me to avoid countless hours in bathrooms from Asia to Africa.
  • Allergy Medicine (such as Allegra® or Zyrtec®):  even in the States, your nose may run into pollens, cat hair, or other irritants not found at home.
  • A Course of Antibiotics:  for international travels, especially when headed to more remote and exotic locations (Africa, South America, Asia).  More than once I’ve been thankful to have antibiotics with me when faced with a bacterial sinus or gastrointestinal infection in some exotic land.  Speak with your physician well ahead of time about your itinerary so that he or she may prescribe the antibiotic most appropriate for a potential infection in the specific world region.
  • Your Prescription MedicinesAlways take more than the exact number of your prescription medications needed based upon your days of travel.  After all, plane flights get delayed and even cancelled, and you never know when you’ll be stuck for an extra few days in a foreign port due to weather or some other factor (or, if you’re lucky, you met that special someone).  Having extra prescription medicines never hurts anyone.  Having too few doses does.

Finally, if you have a particularly complex medical history (multiple medical problems, or even one extremely complicated condition, such as kidney failure, heart failure, or cancer), consider carrying a print or electronic version of your most recent medical history with you.  Such information (which includes your current and past conditions and health status, your medications, and other pertinent medical facts specific to you) may be surprisingly helpful should you become seriously ill or are injured when away from home (even when still in the U.S., and abroad, a significant number of foreign physicians read and understand English).

Getting sick when traveling sucks.  But my own significant experience has shown me that these few items and tricks can dramatically improve what would otherwise be a miserable away-from-home experience.