Spread Holiday Cheer, Not Germs: Tips for Travel During Cold, Flu Season

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woman in hat blowing noseMillions of Americans will board planes, trains and automobiles to visit family and friends this holiday season. And the number of germs that will accompany each passenger? Too many to count.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, December is a peak flu month. Mix that with increased holiday travel, and you’ve got a recipe for sore throat, headache, fever, muscle aches, congestion and cough that no one wants to share.

Sharing is not always caring

Adults typically get two to three colds per year and children can get up to eight or more. While germs can lurk most everywhere you go, Clint McHenry, DO, says cold and flu viruses are more easily shared in close quarters. McHenry is a primary care physician at Ascension Medical Group Providence at Lake Shore. Ascension Providence is a part of Ascension, the nation’s largest nonprofit health system and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

“Tight spaces foster the spread of illness,” McHenry said. “Sharing smaller spaces means you are in closer proximity to people who haven’t recently washed their hands. You’re a likely landing spot for droplets spread through coughing or sneezing.”

Before boarding a plane, train or bus, consider delaying your travel plans if you are sick. When you can’t change travel plans, consider a surgical mask. Though not a popular fashion choice, wearing a mask can prevent you from sharing germs each time you cough or sneeze.

Are frequent flyers sick more often?

If you think flying and getting sick often go hand in hand, you may not be wrong. But not necessarily for the reasons you might think. Experts theorize air travel increases infection risks because of recirculated air or less humidity. McHenry points out that air quality on planes has not been proven as a leading cause of the spread of a cold virus.

“The cold virus is most often spread by hand-to-hand contact,” McHenry said. “Germs can travel through handshakes or touching a contaminated surface, then touching your eyes, nose or mouth,” McHenry said.

The cold virus can survive on hard surfaces for several hours and on our hands for about two hours. McHenry emphasizes that consistently washing your hands when you are sick and even when you are not is a proven way to protect you, and those around you, from infection.

Call on your inner germ-fighter

While you may not be able to control when and where you are exposed to germs, you can support your immune system to help give yourself a fighting chance against holiday sickness.

“We see that our bodies are more susceptible to illness when we don’t get enough sleep, have extra stress or are malnourished,” McHenry said. “Therefore, it is important to focus on these things to strengthen our immune system so our bodies can help fight infection when we need it to.”

Vitamin C is a popular go-to immune system booster during cold and flu season. But McHenry points out while not necessarily harmful, studies have not consistently shown that taking vitamin C to boost your immune system helps prevent illness or helps it pass more quickly.

Best recipe for cold and flu-free travel

No matter how you travel, McHenry suggests these tips for getting home for the holidays cold and flu free:

  • Wash your hands, often. Use soap and water and scrub for at least 20 seconds. Hum, sing or whistle the tune of “Happy Birthday,” then rinse and dry.
  • Pack hand sanitizer. If you don’t have access to soap and water, alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol is second best.
  • Take care of yourself-mind, body and spirit. Eat well-balanced meals including fruits, vegetables and lean meats. Stay hydrated. Exercise regularly and reduce stress through yoga or meditation.
  • Vaccinate. The flu vaccine is a proven way to prevent the flu virus. It takes time for the vaccine to get to work, so those who are not allergic to the vaccine, and especially children, the chronically ill and the elderly, should get vaccinated in October or November. Is it too late? The flu season extends into the spring, so now versus never can still boost your chances of making it through the flu season symptom-free.

Recipes don’t always turn out as expected. If you find yourself with cold and flu-like symptoms that don’t improve within a week or two, call your doctor to rule out other causes of illness.