12 Carry-on Essentials to Help You Stay Healthy While Traveling
The only thing worse than getting sick while traveling? The moment you realize your hotel room doesn’t come with a fully-stocked medicine cabinet. If your idea of preparation is to toss a bottle of ibuprofen in your toiletry kit, you could be in for a rough trip should a bug get the best of you.
When you travel, your immune system is weakened thanks to less sleep, more stress, and a disrupted circadian rhythm, explains New-York based travel medicine expert Ronald A. Primas, MD. Plus, on a plane or in a car, you’re stuck in an enclosed space for a prolonged period of time, so if the person in front, behind, or next to you has something contagious, you’re more likely to catch it.
Your best armor is to be as healthy as you can be prior to traveling, but instead, most of us spend the days leading up to vacation scurrying around to tie up loose ends. “Before traveling, stress levels are high, you’re getting less sleep and probably consuming increased amounts of caffeine. Then, on vacation, your body crashes and your prior habits catch up with you,” says Angela U. Tucker, MD, clinical assistant professor of family medicine at The Ohio State University.
Instead of sweeping your entire medicine cabinet into your carry-on, pack only the most effective and multi-purpose meds to battle the ailments you’re most likely to encounter on the road. These 12 picks will shield you from the ravages of bad seafood, lurching bus rides, and the cougher in 23E.
(One note: If you have a pre-existing medical condition, especially one that makes you prone to blood clots, talk to your doctor about what additional medications you should carry with you.)
Staying hydrated is the single best defense against all the health problems associated with traveling. But keeping your H2O levels up is even harder when you’re away from home. “People who are traveling by plane tend get dehydrated from the re-circulated air and altitude,” Primas says. Plus, most of us are downing either coffee or alcohol—both of which dehydrate you quicker—to cope with all the changes.
Stay on top of water intake, and catch your levels back up with an electrolyte-heavy hydration mix. (We like Skratch Labs Rescue Hydration, which isn’t overloaded with artificial sugar and comes in portable, single-serve pouches.)
Zinc Lozenges with Echinacea and Vitamin C
“One of the most common concerns that people have while traveling is contracting an upper respiratory illness, especially when seated next to someone who is coughing or febrile,” says Primas. Combat a sniffling seatmate by popping in a lozenge packed with vitamin C, zinc, and Echinacea, he suggests. (Nature's Way makes one that fits the bill.)
Research on just how much vitamin C helps is still pretty inconclusive, but dosing up on the vitamin certainly won’t hurt, and there’s evidence that zinc may help reduce the length of a cold and its severity if taken the first day, Tucker adds.
Surgical Face Mask
Okay, we’ll be the first to admit these look dorky. But Primas says he never travels without one, just in case his seatmate is sneezing, coughing, or sniffling—all signs of a very contagious upper respiratory infection.
If you don’t want to spend your whole vacation drowning in tissues, popping on a N95 mask can save you from inhaling the post-sneeze or post-cough infected air.
“Sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs) are the second most common travel-related illness that I see in my practice,” Primas says. We’re not surprised: A study from Expedia reports that traveling itself boosts people's sex drive—probably because you're happier and less stressed.
However, research from the Universities of Illinois shows while on vacation, women are more sexually adventurous and less concerned with consequences, including a higher likelihood of having unprotected sex. And remember, STIs don’t discriminate—Primas says he sees both men and women, single and married come home with concerns below the belt.
So no matter how you think your vacation is going to go, pack a few extra rubbers (which are highly effective in preventing the spread of STIs), just in case.
Motion Sickness Medication
If you’re spending any length of time in a car, on a bus, or on a boat, pack meds to help soothe your stomach—even if you’ve never had a problem before. Motion sickness is very common for all forms of transportation, but it’s very easily treatable if you have the right pills on hand, Primas says.
The easiest: Dramamine or Antivert, either of which you can score over-the-counter. If you know you get car sick or seasick, ask your doctor for a prescription for scopolamine for prevention and something like prochlorperazine or promethazine to help once it hits.
Prebiotics and Probiotics
Gastrointestinal distress—that’s cramping, nausea, bloating, vomiting, and diarrhea—is incredibly common when visiting somewhere new, Primas says. And it’s not limited to places with unsafe water.
GI distress is actually the result of your gut microbiome’s inability to adapt to the bacteria that unfamiliar food may have introduced to your body. The fix: taking a prebiotic and probiotic, which stabilizes the bacteria in your microbiome.
Primas suggests inulin and oligofructose before meals and saccharomyces boulardii after, since these all don’t need to be refrigerated like most others and will travel well. The capsules double as both prevention and treatment.
Cranberry Extract With D-Mannose
A window seat on a long-haul flight may be ideal for snoozing—but for women, the infrequent bathroom breaks that result can up the risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs), says Primas. In addition to staying hydrated and peeing every two to three hours even if you don’t feel like you have to (it flushes bacteria out of the urethra), UTI-prone women should take cranberry extract with D-Mannose preventatively.
A study in the Journal of Clinical Urology found that women with a history of recurring UTIs who took D-Mannose a few times a day were less likely to develop an infection than those who didn't. Research is conflicting on whether cranberry pills truly help prevent a UTI, but they certainly don’t hurt, so better safe than sorry.
Their jingle doesn’t lie: Pepto-Bismol can tackle nausea, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach, and diarrhea. Because it’s such a multi-use medicine and the tablets are portable, this one is great to bring on your travels to relieve any GI distress, Primas says.
On a flight, it’s not just sick seatmates you need to be wary of: You’re just as likely to catch something from the person who sat in 8A before you (and before them, and before them). “Germs can be easily spread from surfaces like railings and handles, so pack antibacterial wipes to disinfect the seat belt, armrests, and tray on a plane—and avoid using the pocket in the chair in front of you if you can,” Tucker says.
Travel is ripe with opportunities to make your head pound. Not only is your sleep schedule off thanks to early flights and time zone changes, but your body is probably also going through caffeine withdrawal if you skipped your daily jolt of java, Tucker points out.
From the moment you step off the plane to the time you touch down back home, your body is being exposed to brand new plants, food, and particles in the air, depending on your destination.
Packing an oral antihistamine can help if you suddenly find yourself allergic to one of these new substances, Tucker says. A basic allergy pill like Claritin or Allegra works, but if you don’t want to bring an entire bottle, try something like UrgentRx Allergy Attack, which are individual, convenient-to-pack diphenhydramine powders (the same formula as Benadryl).
Bonus: Diphenhydramine can double as a sleep aid if need be.
You really only score quality sleep when you’re adhering to a schedule. “When we travel across time zones, we affect not only the timing of our sleep, but also timing of our meals, exercise, social interactions, and light exposure—all of which create problems with our brains generating the chemical cascades necessary for sleep,” explains W. Christopher Winter, MD, author of The Sleep Solution.
To add insult to injury, sleeping in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable environment—like a coach airplane seat or a bus station bench—can create fragmentation in sleep, which thwarts any effort toward a good night’s rest. While there’s no pill to cure jet lag, having a sleep aid on hand can help you catch some Zs in your new destination, Winter says.
Grab an OTC medication containing diphenhydramine, like Tylenol PM Simply Sleep, or ask your doc for a stronger ‘script (like Belsomra). Sleeping pills are for specific situations, like travel, so it's okay to ask your doctor for something to help set your sleep on track, he adds.