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18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling

sick cold sneeze tissueThe average American vacation is a scant 3.8 days at present, according to the U.S. Travel Association. The typical independent traveler will figure out a way to escape for much longer than that, but even then, losing even a couple of days to illness or other maladies can nearly ruin a trip.

The best remedy for travel sicknesses is prevention. To that end, here are 18 surefire ways to get sick while traveling; avoid them and you will feel like a champ on your next trip.

1. Guzzle a lot of tap water.

Most tap water is perfectly fine to drink -- if you are a local. For travelers, however, the bacteria found in tap water around the world varies considerably, and your own belly biome may not stand up well to the local bacteria, even if you like the locals themselves.

The best approach here is to buy and drink bottled water only; in most cases bottled water has been filtered sufficiently not to cause trouble even for weaker stomachs. Beware, however, establishments that reuse old water bottles by refilling them at the tap. You will want to open your new water bottle yourself to be sure.

And don't forget that ice cubes are typically made from tap water; this is an easy one to forget. Unless you know the ice was made with bottled or disinfected water, skip it.

It may be obvious, but this tip applies mostly to international travel; water standards throughout most of the U.S. allow you to ignore this advice stateside (as well as in Canada, Western Europe and other developed countries).

2. Eat food washed in tap water.

Similarly, if you eat food that was rinsed or washed in tap water (or worse, such as in a washing basin filled with water in which other food was also washed), you are vulnerable to the same bacteria as if you guzzled the water down yourself. This tends to happen most frequently with things like lettuce, onions and other vegetables that come from the ground, need washing and are typically served raw.

Drinking Water Safety

3. Rummage around in the seatback pockets.

Airplanes are notoriously filthy, and they're cleaned far less frequently than you might think; certainly there is no deep cleaning going on during the short period of deboarding and reboarding that goes on at most airline gates. While I do recommend checking out the emergency information at the beginning of your flight, avoid rummaging around in the seatback pocket entirely if you can help it.

The same goes for a slightly lesser extent to pretty much all surfaces on the plane (and in the airport waiting areas and bathrooms, etc.), but the seatback pockets seem to be particularly troublesome areas. Some travelers immediately come and wipe down everything around their seat with an alcohol wipe, which may be going overboard a bit, but it sure can't hurt. If that isn't your style, try to keep your hands away from your face until you have had a chance to clean up after your flight.

4. Drink from unclean or unwrapped glasses in hotel rooms.

By now most folks have seen the hotel sanitation exposes where hotel cleaning staff merely wipes out a used glass with a towel, or, even worse, sprays some kind of cleaning agent in a glass, wipes it with a dirty rag and puts it back on the counter. Germs, chemicals, leftover toothpaste; none of these are good for you. The rule of thumb here: If the glass is not wrapped in a sealed plastic bag, wash it yourself using very hot water, or simply don't use it.

5. Don't hydrate, especially while flying.

Your body needs water to do pretty much everything, and hydration only gets more important when you are tired, run down and under siege by unfamiliar germs. Dehydration not only makes you more vulnerable to invading bugs (sometimes in unexpected ways, as described in Avoiding the Airplane Cold), but also makes it harder for you to recover once infected in some way. Some of the other tips here are open to interpretation and may vary greatly by destination and by the individual traveler as well, but this one is lot less negotiable.

Keep in mind that drinks like alcohol and coffee don't really count as good choices for hydration. They are not terrible -- the hydration effect of coffee is a net positive, for example -- but they aren't going to get the job done well under tough conditions.

6. Alter your diet radically.

Eating and drinking like the locals is an essential and very satisfying part of travel, and to skip this experience is a non-starter for a lot of travelers. But switching up your diet too drastically can topple all but the hardiest constitutions; for example, if you eat mostly fruit and vegetables at home, jumping into having barbecue or other meat three times a day might not be like a great idea. Dig in on the local stuff, but maybe have a meal or two each day that is a bit more like your home fare.

As you spend more time in a place, you can often shift gradually to eating like a local around the clock, but we recommend giving your gut a couple days to get ready.

Eating Well and Staying Active While Traveling

7. Eat at a deserted restaurant.

Spoiled or tainted food can cripple travelers for a few days, or worse; a good indicator of the freshness and edibility at any given restaurant is how many people are eating there and how many of them are locals. Eating establishments favored by the hordes and by the locals are less likely to have a reputation for tainted food. Even if the flora differs a bit from that at home, the fact that heaps of folks are eating the food is almost always a good sign. There is strength and safety in numbers on this account.

8. Don't eat boiled or peeled food.

This is an old traveler's standby; when in doubt, eat only food that is either boiled or peeled. Germs will be killed off pretty much universally by boiling, and germs can't get into food that has a peelable skin in most cases.

9. Get really jacked up on caffeine.

turkish coffeeJet lag, the availability of great local coffee and a bit of extra leisure time to enjoy a refill can tempt travelers into noticeably upping their coffee intake. Your belly might not agree with this tactic; big increases in your daily caffeine intake can cause you some really uncomfortable hours just when you don't want them. Keep your caffeine consumption within range of your normal levels at home to avoid problems.

Tips for Fighting Jet Lag

10. Try to quit caffeine cold turkey because you are on vacation.

Conversely, if you have a fairly regular caffeine habit, you will want to figure out a way to slake your appetite for it almost as soon as your travels start. Anyone who has tried to go cold turkey on caffeine understands how miserable the withdrawal can be; it can also last from a couple of days to a week and a half, the full length of many trips.

11. Miss a lot of sleep.

Along with hydration, sleep is your most effective weapon against becoming ill or fighting it off once you are already infected; in fact, sleep and hydration together are your best tools both for prevention and recovery from illness on the road. Don't shortchange yourself on shuteye when you're traveling.

12. Don't pack your medications.

If you have go-to medications when you get ill -- or, even more critically, have prescription medications you need -- you will want to bring them on your trip so you have the right medication at the right time. When traveling abroad, buying something even as simple as DayQuil can be difficult, as language barriers, availability and even different formulas in different parts of the world can make it tricky to know exactly what you're buying. A lot of folks have medications that just seem to work best for them, and if this is the case, bring them from home.

13. Skip hand sanitizers.

I am not a fan of constantly pouring hand sanitizers every time your hand touches something new, but while overseas there are different bugs all around you, so this can help. I recommend you pick and choose when to use these -- on airplanes, in questionable restrooms, after your kids go in a McDonald's playground, that kind of thing -- and otherwise don't worry about it all the time. You don't need your hands to be as clean as an operating room -- just clean enough not to wreck your trip.

14. Rely on your immune system alone if you get sick.

Most cases of traveler's tummy are caused by strong or unfamiliar bacteria, and the cure for a bacterial infection is to take an antibiotic. You might think to let your body fight off the bacteria for a while, and only if you don't recover quickly to go see a doctor, but it may be better to get to a doctor more quickly so you don't give the bacteria time to thrive.

In some cases, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic before your trip for use in case you get traveler's stomach; the choice of antibiotic differs by destination, so check with your doctor directly on this one.

15. Don't use sun protection.

Any number of discomforting conditions can be caused by too much sun, and it doesn't take that much exposure to bring on symptoms that can range from itchy skin to fairly serious stomach problems, all potential symptoms of sunstroke or excessive sun exposure. Over the decades, many trips have been ruined by a bad sunburn; pack a serious sunblock and you are set. Check out these tips for treating a sunburn from the CDC.

16. Swim in polluted water.

There is a fantastic lake near my home, and the temptation to swim in it would be quite high -- if I didn't know what was in there. The water is beautiful, giving no hint of the heavy metals, goose bacteria and annual algae blooms that abound in the water. There is a reason you don't see anyone swimming in the lake, ever.

lake swim jumpNote that the presence of people in the water isn't necessarily proof that the water quality is acceptable; there are lots of locations where locals go swimming (and catch and eat fish and the like) where health officials advise against it. Before diving in, you will want to look around for signs, pipes emptying into the water, scum on the surface and other common-sense indicators that water isn't safe for swimming.

The World's Coolest Lakes

17. Skip recommended vaccinations.

Before you travel, check the CDC and State Department websites to find out if any specific vaccinations are recommended in the regions to which you are traveling. If so, make an appointment to get them done well before your trip.

18. Don't do any research on health risks in your destination.

This is easy as can be these days; check out the CDC's destination list for heaps of information by country.

While you can't safeguard against every possible malady, following all of the above recommendations will significantly reduce the likelihood of getting sick while traveling. If you have any tips we missed, please add them in the comments. In the meantime, stay well and ...

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
TravelersEd@independenttraveler.com
Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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