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.

Air Quality Control

Luckily, there are a few simple steps you can take to reduce your exposure and minimize your chance of being sick on your trip.

  • Practice good hand hygiene Pack an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your carry-on and use it early and often (after getting seated, before and after eating and drinking, and when you return from the rest room.) This step alone will reduce your chance of getting sick by 50%. 
  • Wipe your worries away Bring along sanitizing wipes and clean your tray (which can harbor the dangerous MRSA bacteria and handrails.
  • Be wary of the bathroom Airplane bathrooms are some of the germiest places around. Wash your hands afterwards, use a paper towel to open the door when you leave, and then slap on hand sanitizer when you're back in your seat.  
  • Arm your immune system North American ginseng is a promising botanical product used to ward off flu. Populations that take it appear to have a lower incidence of viral spread. Try to be well rested and have any chronic conditions well under control before you travel. 
  • Aim the air Make a fist with your hand and place it directly over your chest, then aim the air vent to blow onto it. That will give you the best airflow to protect you from being exposed to an infection.  
  • Stay hydrated Drinking lots of water will not only help your membranes to stay moisturized, but it will help keep you from developing potentially fatal blood clots in your legs, which crop up because staying immobile in a tiny space slows circulation. Also get up and walk the aisle once an hour.  


Hotel Hot Spots to Check Out When You Check In

  • The bedspread You may be tempted to flop down first thing but don't do it until you remove the bedspread, which is rarely, if ever, cleaned. Fold it up and stash it well away from your belongings. Then check to the sheets. Look for hairs, any other evidence they were used, and traces of bed bugs. If the sheets aren't clean, ask for a new room (if the sheets are dirty the rest of the room probably is.) If you find evidence of bed bugs, get a refund on your reservation and find a new hotel. If one room has bed bugs, others will too.
  • The phone and remote control Two of the most handled places in hotel rooms are almost never cleaned and harbor all manner of bacteria and viruses. Experts recommend using a Ziploc bag as a makeshift glove when handling the remote or using a chlorine antibacterial wipe and wiping down every button, crack, and crevice, spending extra time on the power button, which is touched the most.
  • The bathroom The worst offender is probably one you won't suspect. Those cute courtesy glasses by the sink almost never get a proper dishwashing and are more likely wiped down with a towel from the room, leaving them loaded with bacteria. Skip them unless you're supplied with plastic glasses sealed in plastic. Experts recommend travelling with your own collapsible cup.  
  • The carpet A quick vacuum does nothing but pick up dust and move bugs and fungus around. So, bring slippers or flip-flops to protect your feet. 

Home Sweet Harm: Hidden Dangers in the Guest Room

Staying at a friend or family's house means more quality time with the people you love, but it also means more one-on-one time with the germs they harbor. If you're preparing for guests, don't just vacuum, use a germicidal cleaner on all carpets and use a chlorine-based cleaning product in the guest bathroom applying it with a lot of love and elbow grease.