Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.comBy Rebecca Brown
Whether you're going by boat, plane, train, or automobile, travel bugs are bound to greet you. Here, some cringe-worthy stats on germs and traveling -- and tips on how you can take a trip unscathed.
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1. Stay Hydrated
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the air inside planes has anywhere from 10 to 20 percent humidity, which can dry out mucous membranes and make people more susceptible to germs. Staying hydrated throughout the trip can prevent nasal passages from being irritated, so load up on water and skip the carbonated beverages and booze. "Alcoholic and caffeinated drinks should be followed with water or fruit juice to rehydrate because they are diuretics and can cause water loss," advise Ray Fillmore Garman, MD, MPH, and Susan Spengler, MD, both associate professors with the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Kentucky. Sipping on water assists with immune function -- and in some cases even helps with jet lag. For longer, international trips pack electrolyte-friendly snacks like GU Energy Chomps ($35.20 for a box of 16 packets, guenergy.com), a banana, nuts, or a small bag of fortified cereal to keep drowsiness at bay.
2. Move Seats
During flu season, jet setters are justifiably concerned about getting sick while globetrotting long distances on airplanes. And those worries come well backed by research. "There are two ways that infectious disease spreads -- one is by droplets in the air and the other is when we touch a surface that is contaminated," says Larry Weiss, MD, cofounder and chief scientist at CleanWell, a company that makes sanitizers and household cleaning products to kill germs without the use of harsh chemicals.
But breathe easy -- the majority of modern commercial aircrafts have HEPA filters (similar to what hospitals use to keep the air clean) that introduce fresh air into the cabin and capture more than 99 percent of the airborne microbes. Even so, studies have shown that the chance for post-flight disease increases when seated in a "hot zone" (two seats to the front, side, and behind an ill passenger). Speak with a flight attendant about relocating if someone near you is sick and if you can't use a saline spray like Flight Spray Nasal Hydration Spray ($11.49, drugstore.com) to keep your nasal passages moist -- it could help your health post-flight.
3. Skip the Pillows and Blankets
Who doesn't want to create a comfy cocoon while soaring 30,000 feet above the ground? Feel free to nest, but bring you own fluff from home. "Airline pillows and blankets are meant to be changed after every use and flight, however there are no government rules regulating this as such," says Bill Miller, SVP of the discount flight site CheapOair.com. Roughly once every couple of months, an aircraft interior will go through a thorough cleaning, but there's no way to know whether the cover in your seat came straight from the dryer or the dirty hamper. "Per FAA guidelines, an airplane inspection, called a C check is done after a certain number of flying hours -- usually every 18 to 24 months. During that C check, an airplane is overhauled and everything is examined and cleaned," says Miller.
Err on the side of caution and bring your own carry-on comforts, like the Cat Nap Transit Pillow ($24, eaglecreek.com). It comes with a removable ultra-soft and washable fleece cover so you can snooze without worrying about getting sick.
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4. Scope Out Public Inspection Scores
The ocean breeze may make cruise ships feel less congested than airplanes, but disease can spread fast, particularly gastrointestinal ailments like noroviruses. According to the CDC, these nausea- and diarrhea-causing illnesses can last for one to two days, just long enough to put a black cloud over your vacation. To keep cruise-goers informed, the CDC created a Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) that makes inspection scores available to the public. Voyagers should check the Inspection Green Sheet prior to boarding and be proactive about what they bring in their medicine bag. "Packing bismuth subsalicylate (BSS) -- the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol -- may be effective in the preventing traveler's diarrhea (TD)," says Dr. Garman. He also notes that taking two ounces of liquid or two chewable tablets four times a day can reduce the incidence of TD from 40 percent to 14 percent. Talk with your doc before you sail off if you're considering this regimen. Check out the VSP Green Sheet Report at cdc.gov.
5. Make a Cruise Ship Checklist
A study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases found that in an objective evaluation of public restroom environmental hygiene on 56 cruise ships, only 37 percent of selected toilet area surfaces were cleaned daily. Microorganisms can live on doorknobs, railings, and even elevator buttons, and passengers can get sick just from touching them. "Some [viruses] like rhinovirus that causes the common cold can survive on surfaces for days, others such as bacteria and influenza last hours," says Dr. Weiss.
As a safety precaution, people should use a paper towel or napkin when handling doorknobs and periodically use hand sanitizer, like Herban Essentials Lemon Towelettes ($15, herbanessentials.com), which acts as a natural antibacterial and antiseptic.
6. Pop the Right Pills
Adequate levels of essential vitamins and minerals are important for optimal health. However, loading up on Vitamin C as a precautionary tactic might not be as helpful as one would hope. "High doses of Vitamin C to prevent or treat the common cold remain controversial," says Dr. Garman. It seems counterintuitive, since the antioxidant keeps you strong and healthy, but the organic compounds in our body should be naturally obtained through a balanced diet. If you're going to keep anything on hand while vacationing, consider a different mineral. "Zinc in the form of lozenges or syrup has been shown to reduce the length of a cold by a day, and taking it regularly might reduce the number of colds you get each year," suggests Dr. Garman.
7. Keep Hand Sanitizer Handy
The water systems in aircrafts can easily become impure and can be difficult to decontaminate. In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR) to ensure that safe and reliable drinking water is provided to the airline passengers and crew. But even so, randomly tested airline tanks have still tested positive for coliform bacteria (associated with human feces) in the aircraft water supply. While there is no substitute for a good hand washing, use a travel-size hand sanitizer like CleanWell's All-Natural Hand Sanitizer Spray ($8.99 for 3 1-ounce bottles, cleanwelltoday.com) or Flight 001 Anti-Bacterial Paper Soap single-use sheets ($6 for 30 sheets, flight001.com) after you suds up with soap and water.
Related: QUIZ: Spot the Germ Traps
8. Avoid These Hotel Horrors
The freshly made bed and unblemished towel in a hotel room can be deceptively comforting, but many small items may not have been cleaned properly and could be covered in E. coli and Enterococci. According to Dr. Garman and Dr. Spengler, objects with a high touch rate, such as TV remotes, telephones, and door handles, are the most likely places to pick up bacteria and viruses. Simply wiping items down with an antibacterial wipe can fix this problem entirely. And be wary of the water glasses. You never know if the housekeeper was wearing the same gloves to wash the cups as she did to clean the toilet. Let the tumbler sit under hot water, or only drink from cups wrapped in plastic.
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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.comBy Rebecca Brown