Healthy Holiday Travel

Pro tips on how to avoid germs and sickness
Man wearing mask on airplane while using smartphone

When it comes to keeping yourself healthy during travel, people’s good-natured advice tends to circulate like the air blowing from the overhead vent on a 747 -- forceful, but somehow stale.

And then there are those who admit they simply resign themselves to getting sick every time they board an airplane.

We wanted to filter out the facts from the myths. So, we asked two of our infectious disease experts – themselves seasoned international travelers, who also run The University of Vermont Medical Center travel clinic – what they do to keep themselves and their families as healthy as possible while flying.

Pre-Travel Prep

Vaccines for international travel

Laura Catoe, NP, nurse practitioner, and Mary Claire Walsh, PA-C, physician assistant, provide advice and pre-travel immunizations for out-of-country travel. “We counsel people on an individual basis about the vaccines recommended by the CDC, and we give them the inoculations they need for their destination,” says Walsh.

When traveling internationally to an exotic destination, Catoe and Walsh suggest making a travel clinic appointment for 6 to 8 weeks in advance, to ensure you’ll have time to get all recommended shots. (Catoe notes that vaccines sometimes come in a multi-dose series.)

“Another option is to chat with your primary care physician, because many of them will do some pre-travel vaccinations in their own offices, depending on the scope,” says Walsh. It’s also a good idea to review the CDC’s destination pages at the same time as you make your travel plans, so you’ll know what to expect.

Vaccines for all destinations

Even domestic travelers should think about completing recommended vaccinations before flying. Walsh recommends that all air-travelers, from business flyers to snowbirds, get vaccinated for seasonal flu, COVID-19, and if applicable, RSV. (That’s a new vaccine this year, designed for adults 60+, some pregnant people and children under 8 months old.) For more details on this season’s vaccine recommendations, check out our November HealthSource article.

For optimal protection, you should get your vaccines at least two weeks before travel. “And it’s not a good idea to fly with babies younger than a month old, because they won’t have received their initial vaccination series yet,” Catoe notes.

Walsh, who has traveled internationally with a 6-month-old, suggests consulting with your child’s pediatrician to determine where they are in their vaccination program and if it’s safe for them to fly.

Medications and ongoing conditions

You should also make sure you’re in good shape with respect to any ongoing or chronic medical conditions.

“Folks can get caught up with the excitement of the holidays and taking a trip. But while you’re away, take the same care and precautions you do at home,” Walsh advises. That includes making sure you have an ample supply of all your prescriptions – not just for the number of days you plan to be away, but also for possible multi-day delays.

She also suggests traveling with medications in their original labeled bottles, when possible, particularly when traveling internationally. “Daily pill organizers make it difficult for customs officers to know what you have,” she says, “and you may be delayed while they verify the contents.”

Finally, if your travels will take you to warmer winter climes, don’t forget your sunscreen and insect repellent. It may not be easy to buy them at your destination.

At the Airport and on the Plane

Mask and sanitize, or not?

While the days of every day preventative masking are over for many, Walsh and Catoe still think it’s a good idea for air travel. “Lots of people who are not wearing masks in their local communities still mask while flying. It helps to maximize their own health and safety, and the health of those they’re visiting,” says Walsh.

If masking, wear a KN-95, the experts advise. There’s a sufficient supply of medical-grade masks now, and the KN-95s are the most effective for one-way masking,” explains Catoe.

And when they announce your boarding call, don’t rush to the front of that big line. “Get on last,” she says. “The air ventilation on an airplane is not as strong when the plane is sitting on the ground as when it’s in the air.” As for using sanitizing wipes and lotion, both experts say that’s up to you. Mostly, they suggest not touching your face or your mouth after touching things like the armrest, the seatbelt buckle, the tray table or the in-flight entertainment controls. Wash or sanitize hands periodically – and certainly before eating or drinking.

Are eating and drinking a bad idea?

We all avoided taking off our masks during flights during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but now it’s more a matter of personal preference. “It’s true that every time you de-mask, you’re putting yourself at risk of exposure,” says Catoe. “But you do need to balance this concern with the need for hydration.”

It’s easy to get dehydrated while flying, so it is a good idea to bring a water bottle to sip from during your flight. (Hydrating also helps reduce the effects of jet lag, Walsh notes.) You should also minimize your use of alcohol, and forego the ice cubes “For me personally, it just feels like there’s hygiene concerns,” says Walsh. “I certainly avoid ice while flying internationally. It’s just too easy a source for contamination.”

Travel and Sleep

Ways to manage jet lag?

Walsh travels to Bangladesh several times a year for her vaccine research, and she has also traveled internationally on vacation with her now-school-age children. She offers several tips to manage possible jet lag on longer flights.

“If you’re going more than a couple of time zones, adjust your sleep schedule before your travel date,” she advises. “If you’re going west, go to bed one to two hours later per night, and if you’re flying east, try to go to bed one to two hours earlier.”

Again, avoid alcohol and drink lots of water when you fly, she says. Melatonin can help reset your circadian rhythms, but she cautions, “Be careful with the dosage. And if you’re planning to give melatonin to a child, definitely consult with your pediatrician beforehand.”

Once you land, Walsh recommends going outside as soon as possible to get fresh air and some natural Vitamin D. “As you adjust to the new time over the first few days, use exercise and caffeine to your advantage, by working out or drinking coffee earlier in the day, so they won’t interfere with your sleep,” she says. “If you take a nap, snooze for just 15 to 20 minutes at a time. “

Finally, if you’re traveling for a big event, such as a work meeting or a wedding, Walsh says, plan to arrive a couple of days early. “Get there before you need to be on your game.”

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