It’s cold and flu season. You know that, because it seems like just about everyone is sick. Your office is cut in half. The receptionist at your dentist’s office is sick. Your mom just called, and she’s sick, too. While the entirety of North America seems to be battling nasal drip, there’s another problem. The holiday travel season is upon us, meaning all of that sneezing, coughing and aching will be boarding a plane with you.
Here’s what medical professionals advised to dodge your seatmate’s illness.
The secret to staying healthy during the holidays is no secret at all: Wash your hands. It’s the most important thing you can do while traveling, and it’s good form year-round, but particularly important in the winter.
“Our hands are the interface between ourselves and the rest of the world,” says Gina Suh, a specialist in infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic. “In other words, our hands touch all these surfaces that are full of germs, and then we touch our own face and mucosal surfaces — such as our mouth, nose, eyes — way more than you would even notice. Most people touch their face many times in any given minute, and that can transmit illness.”
Suh recommends using good old-fashioned soap and water from a sink to properly wash, scrubbing for a full 20 seconds. Wash before and after you eat, after using the restroom, and maybe even right now. It’s that helpful.
“I can’t stress the importance of hand hygiene enough,” Suh says. It’s “probably the biggest thing you can do to help prevent illness.”
Don’t have access to a sink or soap and water? Keep hand sanitizer with you as backup. (But more on this below.)
It’s a stressful time of year, whether the source of anxiety is holiday-related or otherwise. To add insult to injury, that stress can be a detriment to your health. Suh says stress is one of the main reasons people get sick this time of year.
Sometimes it may not be the stress itself that’s a problem, but how it affects the rest of your life. For example, facing stress can lead to eating indulgently at the expense of a healthy diet.
“People may be less apt to eating fresh fruits and vegetables during the holidays and may be eating more fatty foods, meats, carbohydrates, sweets and other foods,” she says.
As you gear up for holiday travel, keep self care in mind.
“Anytime that there’s changes in your schedule for the holiday season, your own self-care can suffer,” says Christa Schmitz, a nurse practitioner and director of nurse education for Passport Health travel clinics. “Anytime that you start neglecting your own self-care, whether it’s with sleep, diet or exercise, then you’re potentially not your best self. And so you could become more susceptible” to illness.
Schmitz recommends sticking to the schedule you’re used to through the busyness of the season and even deliberately carving out more time for yourself. The better shape you’re in before you get on a plane, the better your chances are for avoiding a bug.
Flu season is at its peak over the holidays, so don’t get on the plane without being up-to-date on all of your essential vaccines.
“We’re right in the midst of flu season. When you’re traveling … with other people on planes who have coughs and flulike symptoms, you risk having an exposure,” Schmitz says.
Then there are the measles, which you absolutely do not want to get or spread.
“Right now, measles have been an issue both globally and nationally throughout the United States,” she says. “So it’s a good idea that people are up-to-date on their childhood vaccines, which would include the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, along with the annual flu vaccine.”
Not up-to-date on immunizations? Traveling to another country? You may want to go to a travel clinic before your trip.
“If you’re planning on traveling internationally, there may be country-specific or region-specific precautions to help you with in a travel clinic setting,” Suh says. “There, you can have a tailored discussion, according to your itinerary, about what specific things to look for and what specific vaccinations or medications may be recommended.”
Schmitz notes that certain illnesses are seasonal and perhaps not on the timeline you’re used to. Consulting with a travel health practitioner can prepare you better.
Suh says people are more dehydrated over the holidays. Couple that with an airplane’s dehydrating conditions, and you’re looking at a parched body. You don’t necessarily need to chug gallons of water, but you should be more mindful of your intake.
“I don’t think you should overdo it, because then that could be problematic,” Suh says. “I think that the problem is people fall behind in their hydration. They forget about it. So try to maintain normal or slightly above-normal levels of hydration.”
Instead of relying on the flight attendant’s beverage distribution schedule on the plane, pack a reusable water bottle and fill it up before you board to give yourself the control.
Sleeping enough isn’t only helpful for waking up in time for your flight or being in a better mood at the airport. Should your holiday travel plans include early call times, plan to get adequate sleep beforehand for your health, too. It may sound like common sense, but it becomes even more necessary when you’re hoping to ward off that cold everyone seems to have.
“Get adequate sleep. It’s so important to your overall health and immune system,” says Schmitz, the nurse practitioner.
Although celebrities may go viral for taking in-flight sanitation to the extreme, Suh says using antibacterial wipes and face masks offer only marginal benefits. She wouldn’t recommend wiping down common areas or your seat as a more potent solution than washing your hands. The same goes for wearing a face mask as a barrier against germs.
“You’re not getting the same levels of protection as simple hand-washing,” she says. “I don’t see much downside, except I can’t imagine it being very comfortable for the person who’s wearing the mask. But I’m unclear about how exactly how much benefit there would be.”
Traveling over the holidays can feel like a necessary evil, particularly when you’re surrounded by chaos, and that chaos seems to have a cold. Following these tips, however obvious some may seem, can help give peace of mind while battling deadlines, meal-planning, lost luggage, middle-seat misery, flight delays and in-law visits. Among it all, keep calm and wash your hands.