16 Tips to Stay Healthy While Traveling? You Only Need One Primary Tip…

Y ou do not need 16 tips in order to stay healthy while traveling. Rather, you really need only one primary tip and a few lesser tips to help keep yourself from contracting an illness — or, at least, mitigate the chances of that happening.

I read with interest this “listicle” written by Joanne Chen of Condé Nast Traveller magazine; and I found the advice often repetitive and — in a number of cases — unnecessary.

Please keep in mind that the thoughts and advice I give — shown in dark red with links in dark blue — is based on years of personal experience even though I am not a doctor; and is backed up with sources cited  and linked later on in this article.

Do You Really Need All of This Advice? I Say No…

BEFORE YOUR TRIP
  1. Strengthen your immune system. The scientific evidence on the powers of supplements to prevent cold and flu isn’t yet conclusive, but it doesn’t hurt to take them if they’ve worked for you in the past. As a person who takes no medication whatsoever — not even aspirin — unless absolutely necessary, my personal experience suggests that you ignore this piece of advice. I especially recommend that you avoid taking unproven dietary supplements and instead eat nutritious foods and drink beverages which can help strengthen your immune system instead — such as yogurt, garlic or soup. If possible, take on your trip some nutritious food with you which is not perishable — just in case you get hungry but have no immediate access to food.
  2. Pack these items in your carry-on: Hand sanitizer with at least 50 percent alcohol; disinfecting wipes; a light shawl or coat that can be used as a blanket; a travel pillow; bandages; and nasal spray. Aside from the occasional mild cold, I have not been sick in years — and yet I have never carried hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes during any of my travels. Besides, hand sanitizer is no substitute for properly washing your hands thoroughly. I personally have never needed a light shawl or coat for their intended purposes or for use as a blanket; nor have I ever needed a travel pillow, as those items add what I consider to be unnecessary bulk to my baggage. Carrying a few bandages of various sizes is a good idea which takes virtually no room in your bag. As for nasal spray, I have never had a use for it — but if the nasal passages of your nose tends to dry out often whenever you are a passenger on an airplane, it might be a good idea for you to carry some with you.
  3. Wear glasses instead of contact lenses. Contact lenses can dry your eyes and make them vulnerable to microbial invaders. Wearing glasses also makes you less likely to touch or rub your eyes. If you handle your contact lenses immediately after washing your hands thoroughly, you are less likely to subject your eyes and lenses to microbial invaders. If you strongly prefer to wear contact lenses instead of glasses, carry a small bottle of eye drops with you when you travel to keep your eyes moistened. Otherwise, this is good advice.
  4. Not mentioned at all in that article: ensure that you are as well-rested as possible before embarking on your trip. The weaker and more tired your body is, the more likely you will get sick — especially if you touch sensitive parts of your body without properly and thoroughly washing your hands.
AT AIRPORTS, TRAIN STATIONS, AND OTHER PUBLIC SPACES
  1. Stay at least six feet away from people who are coughing, sneezing, or who simply look sick. That’s the distance tiny virus-filled droplets can travel when exhaled by a flu-infected person—landing in your eyes or nose and ending up in your respiratory system. What about if you are in a crowded area where you cannot stay six feet away from people who are coughing or sneezing? What do you do — shout that you have some highly contagious disease yourself to clear people away from you? Over the years, I have sat next to passengers in airports and on airplanes who have coughed up more lungs than airlines have ancillary fees — as well as sneezed without covering their mouths — and yet I do not get sick because I wash my hands and face properly and thoroughly. I also turn away from them as much and as often as possible to reduce my exposure to their germs. While you can’t “breathe in” the Ebola virus, you can get it from infected bodily fluids, such as blood, vomit, and diarrhea—substances we don’t have to tell you to stay away from. Transmission to a typical traveler is extremely rare. If we did not need for you to tell us to stay away from those substances, why did you tell us anyway? “Oooh, look — there is vomit on the floor. I need to touch it.” Besides, here are the reasons why I already know not to fear the Ebola virus.
  2. Sanitize hands after touching germy hot spots: For instance, the ticket kiosk, ATM, security-line bins (have you seen anyone clean those between use?), door handles, dining trays and tables, and anything in the bathroom. Use sanitizer on all parts of your hands, making sure to include fingertips and any rings. I am no doctor; but I disagree with this advice. I have never needed to “bathe” myself in sanitizer; and yet I do not get sick. Proper and thorough washing of your hands is paramount. If you can’t clean right away, at least be mindful of not touching your hands, nose, and mouth. This is probably the most sound piece of advice given in that article. Condition yourself repeatedly to not touch your hands, nose, ears and mouth after touching “germ hot spots” — like I have successfully done over the years — and you will one day automatically not do so until you have thoroughly washed your hands. This habit became automatic to me; and it could become second-nature to you as well.
  3. Treat public bathrooms as the germy cesspool they are. Do not put your bags on the floor, or your toiletry kit on the counter (if you must, then use disinfectant wipes afterward). If available in the public bathroom, I will use several paper towels on the counter to place my toiletry kit — after having first wiped away moisture on the counter, if any, to prevent it from seeping through the paper towels. I usually carry a few extra paper towels or napkins just in case the public bathroom is not equipped with them. Do your business without sitting on the toilet. Close the lid before flushing, or, if there isn’t one, flush as you leave, to minimize spray-back. Avoid touching surfaces with hands. Again — use those paper towels. By the way, more and more modern public bathrooms are now equipped with toilets, sinks, soap dispensers and air driers which have sensors where you do not have to touch them to activate them. Wash hands with soap and water for a full 15 seconds before you leave. I recommend 20 seconds — or the time it takes for you to sing two verses of the song Happy Birthday. Use your drying towel to exit without touching the door handle (if you can’t, then use hand sanitizer after you leave the bathroom). I personally would use a fresh paper towel and not one on which I dried my hands just so that the door handle remains dry. This advice is not necessary if you can push the door out with your clothed body to exit instead of using your hand; or if the public bathroom entrance has no door but is hidden from view with a curved entryway.
  4. Wear socks through the security line of an airport. The chances of getting a fungal infection are low—you need a damp floor for that to happen—but you may pick up something on your feet, which then gets transmitted onto your hands as you put your shoes back on (and then your face). Although what the author of that article probably meant to say is to not pass through an airport security checkpoint in bare feet, this is is poor advice because whatever is on the bottoms of your socks will wind up inside of your shoes, which at best might result in foot odor; and at worst — that possible fungal infection. Rather, use plastic or cloth “booties” to wear over your socks before you pass through the security checkpoint at the airport. When you have successfully passed through, find a seat where you can remove the booties from your feet and immediately put your shoes back on. I keep the booties in a zippered plastic bag in an accessible exterior pocket of my bag so that they do not potentially contaminate any of my other belongings. If you must wear socks without the booties, have a clean pair into which you are ready to change after passing through the security checkpoint at the airport and place the dirty socks in a bag to isolate them from your other belongings.
  5. Buy a bottle of water (or two) before boarding on a plane. While the tap water on-board has greatly improved in the last 10 years, random samplings have still every so often picked up fecal bacteria, says Charles Gerba, Ph.D., professor of microbiology & environmental sciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson. If you anticipate brushing your teeth or splashing your face during your flight, use bottled water. I never purchase water before boarding an airplane, as it is usually quite expensive and many airlines worldwide serve bottled water on the flights they operate. Besides, you do not need a doctor to give you this advice. Zach Bjornson-Hooper — also known as FlyerTalk member T-wiz and the son of FlyerTalk member l’etoile — took samples of water from different commercial aircraft on a trip back in 2002 and used them as part of a science project at the age of 13 years old. His persistence and innovative results found — among other things — insect eggs that days later in the lab hatched into maggots; and The Wall Street Journal published his experiments and findings. I briefly revisited the potability of water aboard commercial aircraft in this short article posted on June 25, 2010 here at The Gate.
  6. Not mentioned at all in that article: if you have to sneeze, cough or yawn, cover your mouth with one of your arms to prevent the spread of your germs to others. You may feel healthy; but you also could be carrying germs which may not affect you but could affect other people.
ON A PLANE OR TRAIN
  1. Prep your seating area. Flight crews have little time to disinfect between flights, so break out the wipes and tackle the backseat tray table and latch, armrests, headphones, digital screens, and window shutters. Stop with the wipes already! I am beginning to wonder if the writer of this article is moonlighting as a salesperson for a company which sells sanitizer and wipes. Besides, I have never had to “prep” my seating area. Cold and flu viruses can live a few hours to three days on inanimate surfaces. Trade the standard-issue blanket and pillow for your own. And use your carry-on as storage instead of your backseat pocket. After all, how can you be sure that the passenger before you didn’t put a dirty diaper or used tissues inside? I never use the pocket in the back of the seat in front of me for storage of any items I am taking off of the aircraft with me. I have used those pillows and blankets knowing full well that they could be contaminated; and yet — you guessed it — I do not get sick. Why? Because — you are probably noticing the trend here — I properly and thoroughly wash my hands.
  2. Point the overhead air vent down so the current flows vertically in front of your face. This helps divert potentially infectious droplets away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. If your nose feels dry, refresh with nasal spray—keeping the mucus membrane moist will increase its ability to fight infectious microbes. This is good advice — but the reason why I follow this advice is to be more comfortable, as the interior of commercial aircraft is hot and stuffy for me, more often than not. The air from the vent is usually refreshing; and it also helps to deflect those unwelcome invasions of flatulence from some unknown source nearby. Unfortunately, in the cases where an airplane is not equipped with air vents, this advice becomes completely useless.
  3. Use your hand sanitizer throughout the trip—particularly: after putting your luggage away (lots of people touch the handles); after you read the magazine in the back pocket; and after you get out of the bathroom. No no NO no NO!!! As I said before: hand sanitizer is no substitute to properly and thoroughly washing your hands. In fact, liberal use of it could actually dry out the skin on your hands. How many times are you going to sanitize your luggage during your trip? If you are a “germaphobe”, consider your belongings a lost cause in terms of cleanliness until you return home and can give them a thorough cleaning before bringing them into the living area of your home. There are also those people who claim that the more hand sanitizer is used, the more resistant germs can be to it.
  4. Pay attention to your armrest if you’re in an aisle seat. In a 2008 Centers for Disease Control investigation of a norovirus-infested flight between Boston and Los Angeles, aisle-seat passengers were particularly vulnerable. These armrests are often touched by passengers heading in and out of the restroom. Do I really have to repeat myself here?
  5. Notify a staff person if you notice someone who is visibly ill. If possible he or she can move the passenger away from you (and others, depending on the situation), and if it’s a respiratory problem, they will provide a face mask. “If possible?” Have you noticed how crowded and full airplanes have been lately? A face mask — seriously?!? For a number of people, this is unnecessary. But it’s not just the person sitting next to the sick passenger that’s vulnerable to cold or flu viruses: The conventional wisdom is that the two rows in front and in back of the sick person are most vulnerable, but in an Emerging Infectious Diseases paper published earlier this year, a passenger was, in fact, infected by the initially flu-infected person eight rows away. Please read this article which I wrote earlier this month, which addresses this issue.
 USING GROUND TRANSPORTATION
  1. Find the least crowded spot possible on buses and subways. There’s no bathroom on these vehicles, and the trip is usually short, so the risks are smaller than on a plane or long-haul train. However, close contact makes you vulnerable. Some subways and buses are not equipped with windows which can be opened. I find this advice bordering upon ridiculous for aforementioned reasons.
  2. Take a seat. Seats are less contaminated than poles and straps—both of which are very much so. If you must hang on to one, make sure not to touch your face during the ride. Not that I would recommend this; but I perfected the art of being able to stand without holding onto or touching anything from my years of riding as a passenger on the subway system in New York. Go ahead. Sit. I can handle it. 
  3. Sanitize your hands after leaving buses, subways, and taxis. Whether you touched the ticket turnstile, or swiped the screen on the cab, or are just not sure, clean your hands. In a 2011 BMC Infectious Diseases paper, British individuals were at six times higher risk for contracting flu during winter if they use a bus or tram compared to if they never do. I wonder how many units of hand sanitizer and wipes were sold by now as a result of readers reading this article. By the way: whenever I return home, I immediately remove the clothes I wore on buses, subways, taxis, airplanes and other public areas and replace them with clean clothes with which I can sit on my furniture without worrying about germs. Of course, I also — dare I say it again — wash my hands properly and thoroughly.

The One Primary Tip to Stay Healthy While Traveling: Wash Your Hands

You cannot run away forever from people who might unknowingly threaten your good health. Besides — as much as I like to wash my hands properly and thoroughly — the immune system within our bodies is wonderful protection against many germs; but I do realize that the immune systems of some people are stronger than those of other people — such as cancer patients currently undergoing rounds of chemotherapy or radiation treatments, for example. Of course, you know your body better than anyone else…

…but are you sick of getting sick while traveling?

Let me help clear the air — so to speak. Allow me to include an article I wrote — originally posted on July 5, 2013 — asking if you wash your hands properly where one study suggests no.

There are few scenarios which are more physically uncomfortable than having to travel while fighting a cold or suffering from an attack by a virus. Having to deal with the change in air pressure as the aircraft changes altitude during a flight while your sinuses are clogged can be sheer torture for some people. Needing to suddenly use the lavatory while seated in a window seat on a crowded airplane which is flying below 10,000 feet is bad enough under normal circumstances — but when the need arises as the result of an attack on you by a virus, it can feel like the closest thing to pure agony.

Fortunately, those scenarios are indeed preventable — and I am living proof of that, as I will explain later.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, washing hands with soap and water is the most effective method of reducing the number of germs on them — and yet, a study released by The School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University reveals that most Americans do not wash their hands properly.

Unfortunately, this is not solely an American phenomenon. While seated on a Boeing 777 aircraft which operated as British Airways flight 154 from Cairo to London last year, FlyerTalk member Phil the Flyer estimated that up to 80 percent of the occupants of a nearby lavatory opened the door to exit that lavatory immediately after flushing the toilet — suggesting that those passengers did not wash their hands.

The statistic is actually worse, according to the aforementioned study, which suggests that as many as 94.7 percent of the 3,739 people who participated in the study either did not properly wash their hands — meaning they washed for six or fewer seconds — or did not wash their hands at all.

Here is a video clip from the Today show on NBC pertaining to the findings of the study:

Fortunately, the sanitary habits of other people — if they even practice sanitary habits — have much less of a chance to affect you or matter to you if you take the proper precautions, which are rather simple to follow and can easily develop into a habit, as they have for me. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines the recommendations for properly washing your hands — and when to do so:

Here is another video from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pertaining to washing your hands and why it is so important, suggesting that researchers in London estimate that if everyone routinely washed their hands, a million deaths per year could be prevented:

When should you wash your hands?

  • Before, during, and after preparing food — here is an article I posted here at The Gate four years ago about a woman who sneezes while preparing food but does not wash her hands before fulfilling the order
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After touching garbage

What is the proper way to wash your hands?

  • Wet your hands with clean running water — warm or cold, although I prefer warm to hot — and apply soap.
  • Rub your hands together to make a lather and scrub them well; be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Continue rubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry.

What if Soap and Water are Not Available?

If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but keep in mind that sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs. Also, it is probably not a good idea to eat foods that you intend to eat with your hands without using an eating utensil — such as a fork — immediately after using a hand sanitizer, as there is a slight risk of ingesting the ethyl alcohol from the hand sanitizer. This precaution especially applies to young children, according to an article by Sanjay Gupta, who is the chief medical correspondent at CNN.

You may want to consider washing your hands before passing through an airport security checkpoint — but ensure that you thoroughly rinse off the soap you used, as the glycerine found in soap and hand lotion could possibly set off the scanner device.

Here are some other interesting findings from the study:

  • Only approximately 50 percent of men used soap and 15 percent did not wash their hands at all.
  • Approximately 78 percent of women used soap and 7 percent of women did not wash their hands at all.
  • People were less likely to wash their hands when faced with a dirty sink; whereas a clean sink increased the length of time spent hand washing.
  • People were more likely to wash their hands earlier in the day.
  • People were more likely to wash their hands if there was a sign encouraging them to do so.

…and As for Me…

Would a hotel guest wash his or her hands fewer times if less soap was provided in the hotel room due to initiatives supposedly designed to save the environment — and save money in the process?

As I alluded earlier, I can vouch for the importance of properly washing your hands. I offered the following advice from an article posted here at The Gate on April 4, 2013 pertaining to a new strain of bird flu virus:

  • Perhaps I may be obsessive, but I always wash my hands when I touch someone or something about which I am uncertain as to whether or not it — or he or she — is clean. The extra time spent washing your hands can save you from much more down time while suffering from less than good health. That is an investment of my time on which I receive an excellent return.
  • Someone once commented to me upon observing me that I wash my hands similar to a doctor. This means washing every part of my hands in warm water from the wrists to the fingertips and scraping underneath each fingernail thoroughly for at least 30 seconds — long after a lather of suds has been built up on my hands.
  • Before I begin washing, I use a paper towel to turn on the faucet, pump the soap and turn off the faucet when I am done, as well as open the door to exit so that I do not come into contact with germs and contaminate myself — and, contrary to popular belief, it does not matter whether or not the soap is of the antibacterial variety.
  • If the soap is a solid bar rather than in liquid form, I wash the exterior of the soap several times before I use it to wash myself.
  • I tend to occasionally rub my eyes, which could potentially be a recipe for disaster if my hands are contaminated. However, once I touch something unknown to be contaminated, I will either hold off on rubbing my eyes or employ a portion of my body to do so instead — such as the back of one of my fingers, or my arm.
  • Because the hands are the most likely body parts to be contaminated by germs — other than bare feet, that is — they require more care than other parts of your body, such as your forehead, your neck or your face. However, those body parts should be clean as well. Especially keep contamination away from your eyes, ears and nose, as they are amongst the most susceptible parts of your body to microorganisms which cause infections and illnesses.

Summary

Washing your hands regularly is amongst the best ways to prevent the spread of diseases, infections, and even illnesses such as the common cold. I speak from experience: with one or two minor exceptions that are too negligible to even mention, I have not suffered from a cold, fever or other illness in several years since I adopted the aforementioned habits in order to avoid getting sick or catching an illness. I have never even had a flu shot. That is because I am diligent about washing my hands.

Some people might suggest that I have tendencies towards being obsessive and compulsive when it comes to washing my hands. Others might conclude that my results might be psychosomatic in nature.

Does it really matter what people think about me pertaining to washing my hands?

All I know is that it works for me — and it can work for you as well if you are diligent about washing your hands properly to increase your chances of avoiding illnesses in the future.

Are there any “listicles” — or articles with lists — on which you would like for me to comment in a future article here at The Gate? Please let me know…

Source of Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States

4 thoughts on “16 Tips to Stay Healthy While Traveling? You Only Need One Primary Tip…”

  1. Wendy says:

    I’m a firm believer in washing my hands frequently. I probably wash them fifty times a day. We joke that it is a hereditary trait. I buy hand soap that I like the smell of so I can double check if the kids washed their hands. If you smell the hands you can tell if they used soap.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      …but do the kids like the smell of the soap, Wendy?

      That sounds like a good tip, actually.

      If you use soap with microbeads but are concerned about the environment, you might want to read this article

  2. Steve says:

    Hotels wash pillowcases, not pillows.

    On the way from the airport to the hotel, I stop at a Walmart or similar and buy the cheapest pillow I can find (usually about $6.00). I also bring a dark colored pillowcase from home. (makes it easy to spot which pillow is mine.)

    I use my case/pillow, take the case home for washing and leave the pillow. For a few dollars I’m not breathing in the last visitor’s germs.

    I use lens cleaning wipes (alcohol) on the seat tray tables.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      My first thought would be that a cheap pillow might be uncomfortable, Steve; but that is a good tip on being cleaner and more comfortable while traveling without being concerned about bulky items in your baggage — and at a low cost. Thank you.

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