Whether you’re taking a trip for business or leisure, there’s no denying it: travel can be a strain on your body. Between the stress of actually getting there, the germs in cramped and crowded public spaces, the new environments, the change in diet, the lack of sleep… suffice it to say that conditions are ideal for coming down with some sort of bug.
And with peak cold and flu season getting under way in the United States between December and February, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk is extra high for spending your trip with a runny nose and watery eyes.
So, what can you do to ensure you’re feeling well throughout your trip and beyond? Taking steps to support your immune system is a good place to start.
Understanding the immune system
The role of the immune system is to prevent or limit infection, according to the National Institutes of Health. It is made up of a variety of organs, cells, and proteins, and it recognizes unhealthy cells in the body and infectious microbes by signals they release.
A variety of factors common to the travel experience can all negatively affect or otherwise challenge the functioning of the immune system. These include:
- Exposure to new germs
- Disrupted routines
- Dietary changes
- Poor air quality
- Insufficient sleep
- Cold weather
- Limited physical activity
Fortunately, taking proactive steps can help reduce the impact of these conditions and keep your immune system as strong as possible throughout your journey.
Dietary tips to boost immunity
Your diet is an important area of focus — indeed, nutrition plays a big role in supporting immune system function. Eating a balanced diet rich in vitamins in minerals will help give your body the building blocks it needs to stay healthy. Based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, a nutritious eating plan:
- Emphasizes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and milk products that are either fat-free or low in fat.
- Includes diverse protein sources, such as seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), soy products, nuts, and seeds.
- Aims to reduce intake of added sugars, sodium, saturated and trans fats, and cholesterol.
- Aligns with your daily caloric needs for optimal health.
Although healthy eating can be harder on the road, it’s not impossible. Research your route and destination in advance to see what restaurants will be available, then look up their menus online and scope out the healthiest options. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that chain restaurants and similar establishments with 20 or more locations must post nutrition information on their menus.
Also be sure to pack healthy meals and snacks for the time you’re en route. These can include non-perishable items such as tuna, packets of nuts or trail mix, air-popped popcorn, and peanut butter sandwiches on whole-grain bread. If you’re able to pack a cooler, you can also include portable items like fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, low-fat string cheese or cheese slices, and whole-grain wraps with chicken or turkey. (Learn more about healthy eating on the road here.)
Additionally, ensure you stay well hydrated throughout your journey by consuming adequate fluids. According to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, this is about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids each day for men and 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids each day for women from both food and beverages.
A variety of foods are also known to be good sources of nutrients that can help support immunity. According to the Mayo Clinic, these include:
- Beta carotene: Sweet potatoes, spinach, carrots, mangos, broccoli, tomatoes
- Vitamin C: Citrus fruits, berries, melons, tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli
- Vitamin D: Fatty fish, eggs, milk and 100% juices fortified with vitamin D
- Zinc: Beef, seafood, wheat germ, beans, nuts, tofu
- Probiotics: Cultured dairy products such as yogurt, fermented foods such as kefir and kimchi
- Protein: Milk, yogurt, eggs, beef, chicken, seafood, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils
Hygiene practices to protect immune health
Maintaining good hygiene practices is another important way to help your immunity — this will mean fewer germs that your immune system has to fight off.
Properly and frequently washing your hands is a cornerstone of keeping bugs away. Begin by wetting your hands with clean, running water, then turn off the tap before applying soap. Vigorously rub your hands together to generate suds, ensuring you cover the back of your hands, between your fingers, and beneath your nails. The CDC recommends scrubbing for a minimum of 20 seconds. Afterward, rinse thoroughly and dry your hands with a fresh towel or an air dryer. Important times for handwashing include prior to, during, and after preparing food; before and after meals; following handshakes; post-toilet use or diaper changes; after nose blowing, coughing, or sneezing; and upon handling waste.
It’s best to opt for soap and water for handwashing whenever they’re accessible. But in situations where they are not available (and when your hands aren’t visibly dirty or greasy), using a hand sanitizer can be a good substitute. Ensure that the sanitizer contains a minimum of 60% alcohol content, says the CDC.
In addition to keeping your hands clean, sanitizing shared surfaces can also help you avoid picking up germs. Disinfectant wipes can be used to sanitize frequently touched areas such as airplane tray tables and armrests.
Finally, it’s important not to touch your face, as infections can enter the body through your eyes, nose, and mouth. The Cleveland Clinic recommends keeping tissues nearby to use if you need to wipe your face.
Lifestyle adjustments for immune support
“Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care.” Shakespeare knew the importance of sleep, and this principle is no less true than it was in his day. Sleep plays a critical role in supporting the immune system. According to Eric J. Olson, MD, lack of sleep can make a person more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, and in those who are already sick, lack of sleep can slow recovery time.
The first step to good sleep is ensuring you get enough sleep. Experts recommend that adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night for good health. In addition to the length of time asleep, the quality of sleep is also important. To slumber well in a hotel or other unfamiliar location, the Sleep Foundation recommends researching hotel reviews beforehand to look for any that mention issues with noise, mattress or pillow quality, or temperature issues.
Be sure to pack an eye mask to keep out light, as well as earplugs and/or a white noise machine to block disruptive sounds. Also consider packing a sentimental item such as a photo to help make you more comfortable in the new surroundings.
Once at the hotel, request (if possible) a room on a higher floor away from elevators and conference rooms. Set a cool, comfortable room temperature and try to avoid using electronic devices at least an hour before bed, as these emit blue light, which causes wakefulness. And do your best to stick to a consistent sleep schedule.
If you’ll be traveling to a different time zone, the Sleep Foundation suggests taking some pre-trip steps to help avoid jet lag. First off, try gradually shifting your circadian rhythm in the day or two prior to your flight so that you’ll be closer to the time zone at your destination upon arrival. This can be accomplished through changes to your sleep schedule, strategically timed light exposure, and (with your doctor’s feedback and OK), melatonin supplementation.
Also do your best to sleep well in the nights leading up to your trip, avoid over-scheduling your first day to allow time for recovery and relaxation, stay well hydrated, and limit or avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can affect sleep quality.
Once at your destination, get exposure to natural light, which can help reset your circadian rhythm to the new time zone.
Chronic stress can also negatively impact the immune system by causing too much of a hormone called cortisol to circulate in the blood. To counteract the impact of travel-related stress, try some simple relaxation techniques. According to the Mayo Clinic, these can include deep breathing, meditation, tai chi, yoga, or listening to music.
Staying active: physical exercise and immunity
Travel, or at least the “getting there” part of travel, can involve a lot of sitting still in cramped spaces. But to the extent possible, it’s important to stay active to keep your immune system in prime shape. In fact, research indicates that moderate physical activity helps mobilize the immune system to protect against invaders.
Fortunately, there are some simple — and fun! — ways you can maintain your activity levels while on the road. When you’re packing, include some portable exercise equipment such as resistance bands or a jump rope that can be used for a quick and effective workout almost anywhere.
Once you’re in the airport or bus or train station, pass some time by walking around the terminal. Carry, rather than roll, your luggage for some added exercise.
At your destination, plan active outings such as walking tours, ice skating, or visits to a local park. You can also try searching YouTube for hotel room workouts. These routines can typically be done in a small amount of space and a short amount of time, allowing you to get in your activity and leave the rest of the day for sightseeing, meetings, or whatever may be on your travel agenda.
Preventive health measures
Before you travel, the CDC recommends making an appointment with your healthcare provider to take place at least a month prior to the trip. At this visit, they can ensure you are up to date on any routine vaccinations as well as vaccinations recommended for your destination. They can also provide any needed prescriptions and advice based on your personal health history.
Prioritizing health for a joyful journey
Traveling brings its own set of challenges, but with the right approach, getting sick doesn’t have to be one of them. By understanding the stressors traveling places on your immune system and taking proactive steps, you can greatly reduce your risk of falling ill.
Remember, your body’s ability to fight off illness is significantly influenced by how well you take care of it. With these strategies in place, you can enjoy your travels to the fullest, keeping those unwanted bugs at bay. After all, the best travel experiences are those where you’re healthy, happy, and ready to explore!
Disclaimer of Medical Advice: This information does not constitute medical advice or recommendation of any kind, and you should not rely on any information contained in such posts or comments to replace consultations with your qualified healthcare professionals to meet your individual needs.