By Alexa Pozniak
Tufts Medical Center Correspondent
Whether it’s by car, bus, train, or plane, traveling has become synonymous with the holiday season for millions of Americans. And while it’s customary to spread joy and cheer this time of year, coming into close proximity with a variety of people, oftentimes in a confined space, can also spread germs.
“For the most part, when we think about catching germs from other travelers, it’s really viruses that we’re most concerned about,” explains Shira Doron, MD, an infectious disease specialist.
“It’s relatively rare for a passenger to be carrying a germ that is transmitted by circulating through the air; the more common infections are spread through droplets or secretions,” Dr. Doron explains. “Your biggest risk is getting coughed or sneezed on, or touching something with germs on it.”
No matter what mode of transportation you choose, Dr. Doron suggests five top tips to keep you healthy through the holidays.
Practice Good Hand Hygiene:
Washing your hands on a regular basis is essential to stopping the spread of infection, and can dramatically reduce your chances of getting sick. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends working up a lather and then rubbing your hands together for twenty seconds, or as long as it takes you to sing the “Happy Birthday” song to yourself twice. If you don’t have access to a faucet, hand sanitizer is a great substitute as long as your hands are not visibly dirty, but make sure it contains at least 60% alcohol. It’s also important to keep your hands away from your face at all times.
Eat Immune-Boosting Foods:
The best way to combat germs is with a strong immune system. Maintain a healthy diet before, during, and after your trip, including plenty of protein, healthy fat, and a balance of vitamins and minerals with a minimum of processed ingredients and sugar.
Air systems on airplanes work quite well at filtering out germs, but the air is dry. According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Research, this increases the risk of getting sick. A thin layer of mucus in your nose and throat normally flushes out germs. But when it becomes dry, your body is more vulnerable to invasion. Drink water throughout your trip, and don’t overdo it on alcoholic beverages and caffeinated drinks like soda and coffee, which can further dehydrate the body.
Sleep deprivation can weaken the immune system and make your body more vulnerable to infection. So set out on your trip well rested, aiming for eight hours of shut-eye each night in the days leading up to your departure date.
Since the holidays coincide with peak flu season, get the flu shot. It may prevent you from getting sick, or if you do get sick, it may make your illness milder. It’s also a good idea to ask your doctor about a pertussis booster, since the nasty infection is associated with periodic outbreaks, and a pneumonia vaccine if you meet the criteria.
Finally, take some time to relax around what can be a stressful time of year.
“Stress absolutely increases the risk for infection so do try to enjoy the holiday season and don’t sweat the small stuff,” says Dr. Doron.