The person next to you on the airplane, commuter train or movie theater sneezes, and you catch a cold, or worse, the flu. Whether you are traveling or close to home, here’s how to avoid the flu. First and most important, get a flu shot. It does not guarantee you’ll avoid the flu, but it makes it much less likely. Plus, flu shots are FREE under most health insurance plans.
Keep your hands germ-free. Most flu is transmitted hand-to-hand or skin-to-skin, including holiday hugs with the family, so it’s important to wash your hands frequently. Unfortunately, just when hand-washing is most important, such as when traveling, it becomes less convenient due to lack of facilities.
- Solution: If you can’t wash your hands thoroughly several times a day, use hand sanitizers, or rely on winter gloves when reasonable. More importantly, avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth unless your hands are clean.
Avoid sharing. It’s often assumed that flu increases due to cold weather because the flu season is the same time as cold weather season. According to Albert Levy, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, the reality is that flu levels increase during the winter because people spend more time indoors. While inside, people share more space with others, touch more surfaces, and breathe more “shared” air. Traveling amplifies this situation.
- Solution: Reduce your chances of swapping germs by avoiding contact with shared items. Don’t put your face directly on airline-supplied pillows or blankets that may not have been sanitized. Ditto the drop-down trays on airline and train seats. Ditto the entertainment remote in your hotel room and on the airplane. Just think of how many dirty hands have touched those! Stick a couple of alcohol-based moist wipes or specific sanitizing or anti-bacterial wipes in your carry-on for just that purpose. Or, just sprinkle a few drops of liquid hand sanitizer on a napkin for a DIY wipe that’s lots cheaper than the pre-packaged kind.
Drink. We mean water, since travel, especially airline travel, tends to cause dehydration. Flying increases your susceptibility to illnesses because the cabin’s dry air accommodates the growth of viruses that thrive on low humidity. Also, flyers stuck in the window or dreaded middle seat may avoid drinking liquids to avoid frequent trips to the bathroom. Yet it’s important to keep your mucus membranes moist, because when they’re dry, they can’t keep germs at bay.
- Solution: A general rule is to drink at least eight ounces of water for every hour in the air. Spritzing your face with water helps keep your skin moist. If you’re feeling under the weather, on the ground or in the air, drink even more than the daily recommended 8–10 cups a day to prevent dehydration caused by fever, It also helps loosen mucus, keeps your throat moist, and lessens the chance of the flu virus getting a hold.
Eat. Travel often leads to poor eating habits. We tend to overeat at family functions, business meetings, or special nights out on the town. Travelers also may under-eat when faced with unusual food choices, or skip a meal altogether because lack of time, motion sickness, or the anxiety of traveling.
- Solution: Make it a priority to maintain good eating habits on the road, including limiting late night eating and drinking. That’s because eating late at night can lead to digestive problems which leads to sleep problems.
Sleep. Travel often disrupts sleep patterns. Unusual travel schedules, early morning or late night meals or activities, travel anxiety, even sleeping in a different bed with a different pillow can lead to lack of sleep. Crossing time zones can also disrupt a person’s body clock and cause sleeplessness and fatigue.
- Solution: Get a full night’s sleep—8-9 hours if possible—to keep your body’s natural defenses at optimum levels. My personal trick to keep my body clock on track is to leave my watch on it’s “home” setting until I wake up the first morning wherever I’ve traveled. That way, especially since I’m too tired to do the math, I know why my stomach is rumbling or my eyelids are drooping
Exercise. Time limitations or lack of equipment on trips can cause even faithful exercisers to take vacations from workouts. And anyone may be affected by prolonged sitting in tight quarters.
- Solution: Make an effort to continue exercising on trips. Check your gym membership to see if there are partner locations in other cities. Even if the gym in your hotel is unappealing, or closed when you want to use it, you can still stretch, bend and do sit-ups in your room.
Portable medicine chest. It’s hard to get good medical care when you’re on the road. It’s no small thing to find a doctor, get an appointment, or fill a prescription.
- : Pack extra supplies of your favorite over-the-counter products pain reliever, vitamin C, and antacid tablets or liquid. Mount Sinai’s Dr. Levy recommends a homeopathic product such as Oscillo as a first course of treatment for everyone. It’s regulated as a drug by the FDA, has no side effects, and clinical studies show it reduces the severity and duration of flu symptoms. It works best when taken at the first sign of flu.
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