Tips For Travel Health

Dr. Andrew Patterson gives you top travel tips even your mother would approve.

By Kate Callahan

Remember all those lectures your mother gave you about drinking plenty of fluids, getting your beauty sleep, and washing your hands before dinner? Well, with outbreaks of travel-related illness regularly in the news, there's absolutely no better advice than what she told you. "It's a lot of common sense," says Dr. Andrew Patterson, a physician with an independent practice in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "All the sorts of things your mother would have told you." So, if you're planning a trip, pack a toothbrush and plenty of clean underwear, then follow these other travel tips your mother would approve of.

Before You Go

You remembered to feed the cat, unplug the coffee pot and lock the garage. But did you pack these essentials in your carry-on?

Colds lurk everywhere and it's likely that you could be overtaken by the sniffles. Plus, the varying levels of moisture and pressure between where you are and where you're going can bring on added congestion, so keep these on hand. If you're planning to fly and you've already got a cold or you suffer from sinusitis, take a stronger decongestant half an hour before you get on the plane. In the air, your Eustachian tubes can more easily become painfully plugged. If you've been sick for a while, Patterson adds, "it's not a bad idea to see a doctor before you take off, to make sure there?s not more to it." Better to find out now than to end up miserable a thousand miles away.

You never can tell how the local cuisine is going to react with your tender tummy. And let?s just leave it at that.

These will keep your hands clean and relatively germ-free, which is essential even in familiar environments. You have no clue as to who touched that bathroom doorknob, who sneezed all over those museum brochures, or what?s gone on in that taxicab seat.

Use any sort of waterless cleanser to disinfect with frequency and vigor. Wipes allow you to keep your hands clean without chancing the local water supply.

Consider this: you've been cramped in an airline seat for five hours. The hotel bed was a little too concave for your comfort. Maybe you've been in the car with your mother-in-law for a cross-country jaunt. Bring a mild pain reliever for the headaches, the backaches, or perhaps even the butt-aches after your 25th mile of road construction.

Above and beyond just grabbing your contact case, make sure you bring an extra pair of lenses for the trip. If you wear contacts and you're traveling by plane, you may be more comfortable in glasses. The lack of moisture in the plane can irritate your eyes, so break out the geek goggles or bring eyedrops galore.

Getting There

So you packed and repacked and you're finally armed and ready for the journey ahead. Here are some things to keep in mind to help you get there alive and well.

High flying: tips for the plane

Number one: do not be hung over when you step on that plane! The dryness of the cabin, the turbulence, and the tiny bathrooms are only going to make you wish you hadn't had that fifth sangria. And while one or two drinks during the flight are okay, excessive drinking is the worst way to fight your fear of flying. Consider the poor flight attendant and imagine how you would feel if it was your seatmate slurring his words before you hit 15,000 feet. More importantly, the alcohol will only serve to dehydrate you, making sobering up even more unpleasant. If you have that much anxiety over air travel, don't self-medicate - talk to your doctor.

Instead of a Bloody Mary, try plain tomato juice, which has plenty of Vitamin C. And water is always a good idea. If you bring your own bottle and stash it in the seatback, you won?t have to wait for the beverage cart. Doctors recommend a glass of water or juice for every hour in the air.

One last tip is to get out of your seat and take an occasional stroll, even if it's just to go to the restroom. Your circulation will improve - preventing the possibility of blood clots forming in your legs, you'll fend off the airline-seat aches, and you will feel much less groggy once you get there.

Road trippin - tips for highway travel

Much of the advice for air travel is just as useful for journeys by land. Although you're tempted to subscribe to your dad's "go-like-hell-until-you-get-there" school of driving, you'll feel better after the long haul if you pull over for a couple of bathroom breaks. Maybe you'll lose a little time, but staying alert and well-hydrated is worth it.

You are more prone to motion sickness if you're riding with someone else behind the wheel. Fight the nausea by gazing out the window at the horizon. Doing something inside the car like reading or even looking at a map sends contrary signals to your inner ear: part of your body says you're moving, but your eyes, fixed on an immobile point in the vehicle, say you're not. If you focus on the scenery instead of your book, you give your brain a chance to reconcile the signals it's getting. Also, try getting out and taking a breather. If your nausea and dizziness persist, check into getting Dramamine, which is available over the counter.

Staying There

Congratulations! You finally made it and you're happy, healthy, and hydrated. Now how do you stay that way?

The old saying is true. Contents of local tap water can be a little suspect, even here in the United States. Not deadly, but "there are just different bacteria in the water," says Dr. Patterson. In any case, boiled or bottled water is always the safest bet. This goes for water in your coffee, in your tea, and on your toothbrush, too.

Might sound kind of silly, but it never hurts to lay your world-weary head on a pillowcase you washed yourself. Hotels have rigorous laundry procedures, but even the spin cycle can't kill all the germs on your HoJo bedclothes.

You deserve it, after all the hours you've traveled. "The problem comes when you get out of your normal routine," said Dr. Patterson. He stressed that the best thing you can do is to make sure that you have a period of downtime when you get to where you're going, especially if you're headed for a different time zone. In situations where you'll be encountering huge time jumps, the best way to counter massive jet lag is to shift your own routine slightly so it matches your new schedule. Ask your doctor about melatonin to help regulate your sleeping patterns once you get there. But, if you'll be in a completely different time zone for only a small amount of time, your best bet is to stay awake until you arrive and then get a good night's sleep once you've spent a day in your new environment.

Written October 1999
Reviewed by Medical Advisory Committee October 1999

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