Toxic Travel: How to Stay Healthy

Traveling can be toxic to your health; here's our guide to staying healthy and having a pleasant trip.

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We travel to work, to play, to visit the people we love, and, when we do, the last thing we want is to get sick. But, unfortunately, crowded airplanes, hotel rooms - even your Aunt Sally's guest room - are teeming with millions of bacteria and viruses just itching to hitch a ride with you. And at busy times such as Thanksgiving (when some 8 million people board trains, planes, and buses), your risk rises.

Here's what you need to know to stay healthy and happy for that long-awaited vacation, critical business meeting, or weekend with your long lost cousins.

The Scare in the Air

You don't need anyone to tell you how crammed jet planes are these days. As airlines try to stay competitive, they jam more and more of us closer together leaving our health at the mercy of our fellow passengers. In fact, one recent study found that when 1,000 people traveled between San Francisco and Denver, 20% of them came down with a respiratory illness within the first 2 weeks after flying. In a famous example from 2003, one coughing passenger on a flight from Hong Kong to Beijing infected 22 other people on board with the deadly SARS virus. Five of them died.

One of the reasons planes are such good incubators for illness is that their ventilation systems recirculate air from side to side. That means when the man in the window seat across the aisle from you coughs, his germs fly right onto you. So you don't have to be sitting next to a sick person to be exposed. To make you more vulnerable, the cabin pressure inside airplanes dries out mucous membranes leaving them more susceptible to germs.