Seven Ways Travel Wreaks Havoc on Your Health
And how to avoid the pitfalls.
Even the sunniest of island getaways has a dark side. While vacation itself can make you happier and healthier, the process of getting there—close quarters, hours of immobility, the wrench in your usual routine—means confronting a barrage of health hazards. Arm yourself against the attack with these stay-well strategies:
The Culprit: Sniffly Seatmates
The biggest threat to your short-term health is the bleary-eyed, runny-nosed dude sitting next to you. But even when you’re safely ensconced in 33E, you may still be exposed to pathogens from Sneezy up in Economy Plus. A 2014 MIT study found that the droplets in coughs and sneezes form buoyant gas clouds that can travel clear across a room—or plane.
The Defense: In addition to your usual hand-washing routine, use a spritz or two of saline nasal spray when you board, and drink 8-12 ounces of water every couple hours, says Clayton Cowl, M.D., chair of the Division of Preventive, Occupational, and Aerospace Medicine at the Mayo Clinic. “The ciliated cells in your upper respiratory system that sweep out foreign invaders work most efficiently when they’re hydrated,” Dr. Cowl explains. And keep the vent above your seat open to help air circulate. “It’s not a surefire prevention measure, but cool, dry air moving around you is a less hospitable environment for pathogens,” he says.
The Culprit: Stressful Situations
Long lines, delayed flights, and missed connections aren’t just annoying—they could be making you sick and shaving years off your life. Stressful situations can throw your body’s immune response out of whack and leave you more vulnerable to illness, say scientists at Carnegie Mellon. And if you’re frequently under pressure, the constant surge of cortisol and other stress hormones can increase your risk for health hazards like diabetes, heart disease, and depression.
The Defense: First, try changing your perspective. Maintaining a positive outlook during stressful events reduces the amount of disease-causing inflammatory compounds released into your bloodstream, according to a study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. So shift your mental monologue to an optimistic one: “Missing my connection isn’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things,” or “This delay means I’ll have enough time to finally finish this series.” And download a guided meditation app, such as Calm or Headspace, to use in a pinch. Researchers in India found that one session of guided meditation can stop the physiological stress response in its tracks. And if used before a stressful event, guided meditation gives your body a buffer, so your cortisol levels and heart rate won’t spike as much.
The Culprit: Germy Planes
Your plane may look clean enough, but it only gets a full scrub-down once a day, which means illness-causing germs from previous flights may be lurking even on surfaces that look clean. A recent report from Travelmath.com found that tray tables are the worst offenders, with over twelve times the bacteria count per square inch as the average home toilet seat.
The Defense: Stash a travel pack of disinfectant wipes in your carry-on, and give your tray a once-over as soon as you sit down. But since your tray’s not the only bacteria-ridden surface, your best bet is to be extra conscientious about hygiene: Use hand sanitizer before eating and drinking or after using the bathroom, and try not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.
The Culprit: Dry Cabins
The average airplane has a humidity level of less than 20 percent, compared with the over 30 percent found in most homes, the World Health Organization reports. That can quickly sap moisture from your skin, eyes, mouth, and nose. And when dry cabin air is paired with the diuretic effects of caffeine and alcohol, it’s easy to end up dehydrated.
The Defense: Instead of waiting for a tiny cup of water from the drink cart, pack an empty one-liter water bottle and ask a flight attendant to fill it after take-off. If you usually wear contacts, switch to glasses on long flights. That’ll stave off itchy, dry eyes and ensure you don’t leave your contacts in too long. Keep your skin hydrated by applying lotion and lip balm frequently, and if you’re prone to dryness, top it off with a thin coat of petroleum jelly. It forms a protective barrier that stops your skin’s outer layer from drying out, according to a study in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science.
The Culprit: Jet Lag
Short term, jet lag can lead to sleep loss and gastrointestinal problems, says Helen Burgess, Ph.D., director of the Biological Rhythms Research Laboratory at Rush Medical College. And long-term, those who frequently experience jet lag are at a higher risk for inflammatory diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.
The Defense: To ease the transition, aim to gradually shift your body clock, says Burgess. Starting a few days before flying, take a small dose of melatonin when it’s bedtime in the city you’re traveling to, and use a light box or spend some time outside to expose yourself to bright light first thing in the morning. Gradually shift your sleep and wake times an hour earlier each day. On the plane, try to sleep and eat when you would in your destination city. And resist the urge to nap when you arrive—that’ll just exacerbate any residual jet lag.
The Culprit: Blood Clots
Venous thromboembolisms—the life-threatening condition that happens when a blood clot breaks loose—are rare in healthy people. But if you’re a smoker, obese, taking oral contraceptives, have a vascular health condition, or have recently had surgery or given birth, you should take preventive steps to reduce your risk. “Deep vein thrombosis starts to be a concern on flights over four hours, and the risk increases the longer the flight,” says Dr. Cowl. The combination of immobility, dehydration from the dry cabin air, and reduced oxygen at high altitude is the perfect storm for DVT.
The Defense: Your best move is to...well, move. About 75 percent of travel-related venous thromboembolisms are due to a lack of motion during long-haul flights, researchers in South Africa report. Every two hours, take a walk down the aisle or do some in-seat stretches by flexing and releasing your calves, ankles, and thighs. The muscle movement gives your circulation a boost, says Dr. Cowl. If you have multiple risk factors, pick up a pair of compression socks to prevent blood from pooling in your calves and ankles. And steer clear of alcohol: It can exacerbate the dehydrating effects of flying, making your blood thicker and more likely to coagulate.
The Culprit: Missed Workouts
The biggest fitness pitfall on the road? Letting a lack of creativity throw off your routine, says Albert Matheny, co-owner of SoHo Strength Lab. “Even if the hotel gym doesn’t have your favorite elliptical, there are a million ways to get a workout in, with or without machines,” says Matheny. And since exercise can help you sleep better, reduce stress, and improve circulation, maintaining a workout habit on the road will give you added defense against common travel-related health woes.
The Defense: Any exercise is better than none, so start by getting your body moving in small ways whenever you can, says Matheny. In the airport, steer clear of moving walkways and escalators, and on the plane, do some in-seat stretches or walk the aisle instead of sitting the whole time. And try Matheny’s hotel room workout in lieu of your usual gym sesh: Set the timer for ten minutes, then do ten each of hamstring walkouts, modified push-ups, squats, full push-ups, and squat jumps. Repeat the circuit as many times as you can before the timer goes off.
Lila Battis is an Associate Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @lilabattis.