Mary and I just returned from a wonderful trip to Ireland during which I fished a lot and she “castled” a lot, meeting up each night and ending with a stretch in Dublin. I had great hopes of reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses” on the trip but thought better of trying to wade through one of the most challenging novels ever written while on vacation. Luckily we and our travelling companions stayed well through the trip, but that’s not always the case.
Sometimes, even though you did all the planning, poured over all the details and prepared for the perfect vacation, things can get complicated. Your flight went well, your hotel is absolutely great, and everything went well, until, not long into your vacation, your throat starts to hurt. When you wake up the next morning, your nose is congested and you don’t feel like getting out of bed. Being sick was not on the itinerary for the perfect vacation.
Getting sick while on vacation is actually common. The reason most people get sick while traveling is vacations are stressful; they throw off your routine and you’re around germs your body may not be prepared for. These factors work together and can make you sick enough to sideline you for much of your trip. Because you’re exposed to unfamiliar germs, and your immune system is either too weak to fight the germs or just caught off guard by them, it can be a perfect storm for illness.
Here are four reasons why traveling may make you sick, and how to arm yourself:
Between catching flights, making connections, keeping with tours and making it home on time, traveling can be stressful—sometimes more stressful than your daily routine. High or continued stress leads to the release of too much of the hormone cortisol, which can wear out your immune system over time.
If you’re experiencing high levels of stress while away, try relaxing and just doing less. It isn’t a waste of time; it’s actually important for your health — and really, isn’t “charging up our battery” the reason we take vacation trips?
Not sleeping enough
When you’re on vacation, it’s easy to lose sleep. After a rough sleep on the plane, the unfamiliarity of hotel beds coupled with a desire to stay up late and enjoy yourself can make it easy to fall behind on your sleep schedule.
While it may not seem like a big deal, sleep is one of the most effective ways to prevent getting sick. One study found that people sleeping less than seven hours a day were three times more likely to catch the common cold than people who get seven hours or more. Another study found that people who got less than six hours of sleep over the course of a week were four times more likely to get a cold.
Make sure sleep is a priority on your vacation schedule, especially if you’ve gone through multiple time zones. Keep consistent wake up and bed times to help keep your circadian rhythm steady. Relax; you’re on vacation!
Undernourishment is a condition where you are eating, but you’re not getting enough of the nutrients you need. Whether you’re traveling to a foreign country or just surviving on fast food at the airport, it’s easy to not get enough of the normal nutrients that you work so hard to include in your normal diet.
Reflect on your diet at home, and try to find reasonable substitutes for your daily nutrient intake.
In addition to food, don’t forget about water. While traveling, it’s easy to get dehydrated, especially if you’re running on coffee and alcohol. Being dehydrated can strain your body and cause you to be more susceptible to getting sick. Be sure to drink clean or bottled water to avoid getting sick from local bacteria in the tap water.
While on the plane, train or bus, there may be people around you who are sick. As a result, their germs can float around the cabin and infect you. In a 2002 study, researchers found that 20 percent of plane passengers reported developing respiratory infections within five to seven days of flying, demonstrating that sickness travels fast in confined spaces.
The best advice for avoiding germs while traveling is similar to the advice at home. Wash your hands often, especially before eating, drinking or touching your face. Try to avoid sick people and crowds. Finally, make sure to be up to date on vaccines like the flu shot or the pneumonia vaccine. Talk to your doctor about whether there are any special vaccines you should get for the area you’re visiting.
Don’t avoid travel; it’s one of the best cures for the “ruts” we can fall into at home. Enjoy seeing new places, meeting new people and trying new things. But I still can’t get used to Guinness.
Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is Associate Chief Medical Officer for Geisinger Health and Chair of the Geisinger Cardiac Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]