5 Surefire Ways to Get Sick on Vacation

By Jessica Scott |

Make these common travel mistakes and you’ll be bringing home more than memories.

airplane aisle

Your favorite resort may be five stars, but make no mistake: It's a petri dish of germs. Same goes for planes, trains, and rental automobiles.

Germs may be everywhere, but they do tend to hide in plain sight. With a little awareness, you can avoid them or kill them off quickly when you're exposed. What's more, there's an even easier way to reduce your risk of travel-related illness: Take care of yourself before you step out the front door.

“The healthier you are, the less prone you are to getting sick if a germ comes by,” says Michael Zimring, M.D., director of the Center for Wilderness and Travel Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore and coauthor of Healthy Travel: Don’t Travel Without It. “The germ doesn’t want to hit a healthy environment. It wants to hit a weak environment.”

Unless you want to come home with more baggage than you left with, avoid these common mistakes.

Mistake #1: You Use Seatbacks as Crutches

Whether you’re on a plane, train, or bus, keep in mind that multiple people have used that same seat you’re in—that day.

Germs stay on surfaces anywhere from a couple of minutes to days, Dr. Zimring says. (An Auburn University study found that the MRSA bacteria can live on the back of an airplane headrest for a week.) If you grab the tops of seats as you walk down the aisle in an airplane, remember that dozens of people have done it before you, including a few who departed the bathroom without washing their hands.

Although hand sanitizers aren’t recommended for daily use—they’re no substitute for soap, water, and at least 20 seconds of spirited scrubbing—they’re helpful when traveling. Choose a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Apply thoroughly after touching seatbacks, touchscreens, tray tables, and door handles.

Mistake #2: You Hang Out in Crowds

If you travel enough, it's inevitable you'll sit next to someone who is coughing and sneezing. If they're coughing into their hands, make sure not to touch what they're touching. Hands are the most likely culprit in the spread of germs, Dr. Zimring says.

If you are managing a health condition or have compromised immunity, consider traveling with a respiratory mask. You may look a little silly, but you'll be thankful later. Make sure to wear the mask over your mouth and nose.

Mistake #3: You Worry About the Price of Bottled Water

“On a plane, it’s not the bad air that makes you sick—it’s the dry air,” Dr. Zimring says. Dry air is just one component that will dehydrate your body, which weakens your immune system.

Caffeine and alcohol do too, so stick with water when it's time for beverage service. And hydrate throughout the day, just like you would at home. Pro tip: Bottled water can be pricey at hotels and resorts, but it's usually free at a facility's fitness center.

Mistake #4: You Handle a Lot of Handles

You can't trust that everyone washes their hands properly. "I'd think twice about leaving the bathroom and touching the door handle," Dr. Zimring says.

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To avoid skin-to-handle contact, grab a paper towel to open the door. At gas stations, use paper towels on the pump, and sanitize your hands after.

Mistake #5: You Let Your Sleep Patterns Go Haywire

"If your body is worn out, you'll catch something," Dr. Zimring says. Stick to your regular sleep schedule. If you're traveling across time zones, adjust to the local time as soon as you land, even if that means staying up until your regular bedtime. It's short-term pain for long-term gain.

More helpful tips: Pack a sleep mask to ensure total darkness—it works great on planes too. And try an app that generates pink noise, which has been shown to enhance deep sleep.

If you’re especially susceptible to jet lag, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before your trip. You’ll also want to check with your doctor if you have a chronic condition or if you’re traveling overseas.

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