18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling
With vacation days so precious—especially in the U.S., where people take an average of just 16.2 days off each year, according to the U.S. Travel Association—getting sick while traveling can be an incredibly frustrating experience.
Don’t want to lose half your vacation to an illness? 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.
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. If you want to avoid single-use plastic, bring your own water purification system such as the LARQ bottle or the SteriPEN.
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).
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.
Airplanes are notoriously filthy, and they’re cleaned far less frequently than you might think; there is certainly 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 too much rummaging around in the seatback pocket if you can help it.
The same goes for 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 seats 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.
By now most folks have seen the hotel sanitation exposes where the 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.
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 a 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.
Eating and drinking like the locals is an essential and 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 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 of days to get ready.
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. 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 (and high turnover means the food is probably fresher, too).
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.
Jet 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 the range of your normal levels at home to avoid problems.
Conversely, if you have a fairly regular caffeine habit, you will want to figure out a way to slake your appetite for it during your trip. 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.
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.
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 remedies that just seem to work best for them, and if this is the case, bring them from home. To learn more, see Traveling with Medication: Everything You Need to Know.
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.
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.
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. Pack a serious sunblock and a wide-brimmed hat, and you are set.
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 it. There’s a reason you don’t ever see anyone swimming in that lake.
The presence of people in the water isn’t necessarily proof that the water quality is acceptable; there are lots of places where locals go swimming (and catch fish and the like) even though health officials advise against it. Before diving in, look around for signs, pipes emptying into the water, scum on the surface, and other common-sense indicators that the water isn’t safe for swimming.
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’re traveling. If so, make an appointment at a travel clinic to get them done well before your trip.
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.
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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.
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