Cold and Flu

5 tips for preventing the cold and flu during holiday travel

There’s a good chance your holiday season will include some travel, and you’ll probably take presents along. Hopefully your gift-giving won’t include a case of the flu or the common cold that you pick up in transit.

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The flu is no fun: aches, pains, nausea and fever take over your life for up to two weeks. Even worse, it’s possible to spread the flu before you have any symptoms. The common cold is not pleasant, either. You’re more likely to pick that up during holiday travel from the abundance of germy surfaces in airports and train stations.

Each year, 5 percent to 20 percent of adults will get the flu, and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized due to complications that arise from the seasonal flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At the same time, most adults get two or three colds per year, most often in the winter.

READ MORE: The 5 Best Health Moves for December

But you can reduce your chances of getting sick. Here’s are 5 ways how.

1. Disinfect during public transport

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The flu virus can live on surfaces for two to eight hours, according to the CDC. Many other viruses and potentially illness-causing bacteria can live on surfaces for weeks, and surfaces in public transport terminals or on vehicles such as buses, trains and planes can be touched by thousands of people each day.

Chances are, some of those people are sick, some without even knowing it, especially in the winter months. Keep the following tips in mind to avoid those germs during travel:

● Wash your hands before meals and after using the restroom.
● Bring hand sanitizer with at least 50 percent alcohol for when you can’t wash your hands. Use it after stowing luggage and after using the bins at the airport X-ray scanners.
● Bring a travel-size package of disinfecting wipes. Swipe them before using an ATM or ticketing kiosk, and on your plane seat armrests and tray table.
● Stay at least 6 feet away from anyone who is coughing, sneezing or even looks sick.

2. Eat well

Robust immunity to colds and flu starts with a healthy diet rich in vitamins and minerals, including many fruits and vegetables. That diet should also include plenty of omega-3 fatty acids to keep your immunity high and help ward off low-level inflammation that affects your internal organs as part of your normal immune response.

READ MORE: Fatty Fish and Avocados Fight Fatigue to Keep You Energized

“Increasing your levels of omega-3 fatty acids will reduce inflammation,” explains Dr. Barry Sears, inflammation expert and best-selling author of the "Zone" inflammation diet books. Internal inflammation around the organs, which you can’t see or feel, tends to be higher in the winter.

And that increased inflammation causes the body to release the stress hormone cortisol, which can cause problems.

“In the process, excess cortisol inhibits the immune system, making it easier for the viruses that cause colds and [the] flu to replicate and spread throughout the body,” Sears says. For the best results, eat a serving of fatty fish or olive oil at least once per day.

3. Get enough rest

In general, people who don’t sleep enough get sick more often. “Lack of sleep can result in weakness or fatigue the next day,” says Dr. Mahmood Peshimam, a travel medicine physician in Orange County, California.

That can result in greater susceptibility to viruses short-term, but a prolonged lack of sleep also increases your risk of illness.

During sleep, our bodies produce more immune cells that help fight infection than they do while awake, according to a 2012 research review in the European Journal of Physiology. Sleeping well after a vaccination, such as a flu shot, helps make the vaccine much more effective, the researchers found.

READ MORE: Flu Shots and Other Free Preventive Care

They also found that the circadian rhythm plays a big part in immunity. Consistently getting the seven to nine hours of sleep your body needs to function properly— at roughly the same time each day— is one of the best ways to stay healthy, traveling or not.

4. Manage your stress

According to a research review by the American Psychological Association, short-term stressors lasting less than an hour actually boost immune function.

But after that, it’s all negative. The longer you’re stressed out, the more your immune system is suppressed, leaving you vulnerable to viral intruders. Find ways to lower your stress during the season and as you prepare for travel. You might try one of those chair massages offered at the airport, or a fun night of games with the family.

READ MORE: Even More Ways to Stay Healthy on Vacation

5. Keep active

“Physical activity and exercise can release endorphins in the brain and give you a sense of well-being,” Peshimam says, but the benefits aren’t all in your head. Cardiovascular exercise also helps regulate cortisol, so you’ll be less prone to stressors that can increase your risk of illness.

Long, intense bouts of exercise appear to briefly lower immune response, so don’t overdo it when you’re traveling and exposed to more viral invaders. Stick to an hour or less of cardiovascular exercise per day while traveling.

With a little preparation, you’ll be able to enjoy holiday travels with your loved ones without any viral company.

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