Being sick is never fun, but getting sick while you’re on vacation is a special kind of miserable. It can also cost you big time, from last-minute emergency pharmacy stops to missed tours and reservations to the worst-case scenario, needing expensive emergency medical care far from home.
Here are some tips and best practices for staying healthy while on vacation, whether you’re traveling internationally or domestically.
Before You Go
There are a few key things to take care of before you even leave home for your trip. Benjamin Franklin was right when he said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It’s better to be prepared for anything ahead of time rather than get blindsided by an issue when you’re on the road and not equipped to deal with it. With that in mind, follow these guidelines to get ready for vacation.
1. Get a Checkup
If you have any kind of health issue or you haven’t been to a doctor in a while, it’s a good idea to get a basic checkup before you head out on vacation. It can help ensure that you’re healthy, have enough doses of all your prescriptions on hand, and are ready to travel. It’ll also give you an opportunity to ask your doctor about any advisories for your destination, including required vaccines.
2. Schedule Any Necessary Vaccines
When traveling domestically, you probably won’t have to get any vaccines other than perhaps a tetanus shot. If you’re taking an international trip, however, you may need a yellow fever, hepatitis, or typhoid vaccine or a round of antimalarial medication.
Even if you’ve gotten travel-related vaccines in the past, most expire after a certain period and are no longer effective. If you can’t remember the last vaccine you had, make an appointment to get up to date. When planning a trip abroad, research vaccines using the CDC website as soon as possible; some require two doses administered months apart. Follow all the guidelines from your health care provider for maximum efficacy.
3. Research Water Advisories
If you’re traveling within the United States, you probably won’t have to worry if the water at your destination is safe for you to ingest — unless you have a very sensitive stomach or a compromised immune system. However, if you’re going to a different country, especially a developing country, you may not want to drink the water and risk contracting waterborne illnesses that can wreak havoc on your stomach and your vacation plans. Do some research to see what is recommended for your destination.
Before I head out on a trip, I like to check what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends on their Resources for Travelers page. When in doubt, I always buy bottled water at my destination, both to drink and for brushing my teeth. If that’s not necessary, though, I don’t want to waste money when the tap water is perfectly fine to drink, nor do I want to increase the amount of plastic waste from disposable bottles that I’m contributing to the local environment.
4. Know Basic First Aid
You don’t have to be a medical doctor to brush up on some basic first aid and pack a few supplies that will save you money and hassle on vacation. If minor injury or illness strikes, it can be useful to know first aid essentials, such as how to disinfect a wound or which medicine is best for various stomach ailments, and to have a few essential emergency kit items tucked into your suitcase.
It’s much easier to have bandages and painkillers with you and not use them than to try tracking them down in a country where you don’t speak the language when you’re in dire straits. The Cleveland Clinic has a handy list of what first aid items to pack when you’re traveling. Feel free to add anything you use at home when you’re hurt or feeling under the weather.
5. Understand Your Health Insurance
Before you head out on a trip, it’s essential to know what your health insurance does and does not cover. For example, if you have to see a doctor who is out of your network, does that require a pre-approval phone call? What if it’s after hours or on the weekend? What’s the course of action for emergency coverage if you’re out of the country? Do you need to alert your health insurance company that you’re going abroad?
Don’t forget to look at any benefits you may have through your employer beyond your health insurance. Many companies offer various perks through employee assistance programs, including companies that can help you coordinate emergency medical care and transport if you need it. Again, it’s better to know what benefits you’re entitled to and never need them than to be far from home and facing an emergency you’re not prepared for.
6. Consider Travel Insurance
Depending on your situation and existing coverage, travel insurance can either be a good investment against bad luck or a waste of money. By researching travel insurance and considering whether you really need to buy it, you can save yourself money and headaches while traveling.
If you think your homeowners insurance might cover hassles like lost luggage and rental car scrapes, make sure you understand your policy’s coverage before you leave for your trip so you don’t end up wasting money on extra insurance you don’t need.
What to Bring
In case you do get sick on a trip, it’s important to bring the right items with you instead of having to track them down in a foreign locale. For starters, it’s hard to figure out directions on proper medicine dosing if you’re looking at a label in a foreign language. Second, it’s often more expensive to buy something in a rush, even if it’s something as innocuous as a bandage. Here’s what to pack for your trip to stay healthy — and to care for yourself if you do get sick.
7. Take Your Medications & Vitamins
If you take any daily medications, bring those with you in your carry-on luggage or purse so you’ll have them on hand in case your checked baggage is lost by the airline or stolen in transit. It’s also a good idea to bring a few extra days’ worth just in case travel mishaps delay your return home.
If you take a daily vitamin, allergy nasal spray, or any other over-the-counter medications, bring those as well. Try to think of anything you take at home to stay healthy, from your multivitamin to antacids, and bring those with you on vacation.
8. Use Hand Sanitizer
Even if you don’t usually use hand sanitizer, it’s a good thing to have tucked into your purse or backpack when you’re on the road. If you’re out sightseeing, taking public transit, or just interacting with more people than you usually do, it’s always smart to keep sanitizer handy in case you can’t wash your hands properly with soap and water before you eat. If you’re traveling in a country where the water is iffy, you can use hand sanitizer after you wash your hands with soap and water just in case there are any lingering germs or bacteria on them.
When you’re traveling, your immune system is bombarded with all kinds of new germs and stressors, so you may find yourself more susceptible to getting sick than you usually are at home. Using hand sanitizer before you eat or after you get off a public bus is like giving yourself extra insurance against these bombardments.
While You’re There
It can be tempting to pack your itinerary, run yourself ragged, and overindulge while you’re on vacation, but fight those urges and you’ll be doing yourself a favor. Taking care of your body while you’re traveling is essential for staying healthy and enjoying your trip.
9. Get Plenty of Sleep
It’s fun to stay up late sightseeing and enjoying the nightlife in your destination, but try to get at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night while you’re traveling. Sleep is when your body repairs itself, and staying up way too late multiple nights in a row or skipping ZZZs altogether can be a recipe for disaster. You’ll be tired, disoriented, and more vulnerable to illness.
If you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, consider natural remedies like melatonin or taking prescription medication. If you can squeeze in a nap while you’re in transit, take that opportunity as well to get as much rest as you can while also getting the most out of your vacation.
10. Combat Jet Lag
Crossing multiple time zones faster than your body can adjust is a recipe for jet lag. Most of us have experienced it before: that feeling of being out of sync with the time at your destination or exhausted long before the sun goes down. If you can train your body to slowly adjust to the time zone in your destination before you even leave home, you can ensure you get quality sleep and avoid feeling crummy and tired while on vacation.
First, slowly adjust to the time at your destination before you depart. You can do this in the days leading up to your vacation by gradually adjusting your bedtime and wake-up time to your destination’s time zone.
Drink plenty of water on the flight to your destination, and adjust your watch and cell phone to the new time right away to mentally prepare for the new time zone.
Finally, when you arrive, stay awake and alert until it’s bedtime there, at which point you can promptly tuck yourself in and try to get a good night’s sleep, perhaps with an eye mask and earplugs if necessary. Finally, set an alarm to wake up with the sun, and you’ll be on your way to beating jet lag and staying healthy.
11. Combat Altitude Sickness
If you’re traveling to the mountains from sea level, you could be at risk for altitude sickness. Also known as “acute mountain sickness,” altitude sickness is any physical distress your body experiences when it has difficulty adjusting to the lower oxygen levels found at high altitudes. It can manifest in many ways, including nausea, fatigue, headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of appetite, and trouble sleeping.
Altitude sickness is fairly common and occurs in people of all ages and physical fitness levels, so it’s worth being aware of if you’re on your way to a place that sits high above sea level. You can combat altitude sickness by getting plenty of sleep, avoiding alcohol, drinking plenty of water, and taking a pain reliever such as ibuprofen.
12. Eat Well
A big part of the fun of traveling is getting to enjoy lots of new and different kinds of food. With this indulgence, though, comes the risk of getting sick. Try to balance eating for fun with eating well, and your body will thank you. If you’re going to splurge at dinner, have a relatively healthy breakfast and lunch with plenty of fiber and fruits and vegetables. Providing your body with healthy fuel can go a long way toward warding off illness while you’re on vacation.
If you’re going to an exotic or developing nation, there are a few things to keep in mind in terms of food safety. When choosing a street vendor or food stall, pick one where people are wearing gloves to handle food and aren’t handling food with the same hands they use to conduct cash transactions. Cash is notoriously grimy and germy, and you want to avoid getting those germs on the food you’re about to ingest. If you’re eating from a street cart or other non-restaurant vendor, try to choose one where you can see that the food is prepared when you order it. This reduces the amount of time bacteria has to grow, unlike food that’s been sitting out for hours at room temperature.
Finally, do a Google search to learn if the fruit and vegetables are safe to eat or if they’ve been grown and washed with dirty water. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and only choose produce with peels or that has been cooked or canned. This can be as simple as ordering steamed vegetables instead of a salad with dinner or wiping an orange with some hand sanitizer before you peel and eat it.
13. Limit Alcohol Intake
It can be tempting to drink more alcohol than you’re used to when you’re on vacation. However, this can compromise your immune system, which already takes a beating while you’re traveling. Consider indulging less, or abstaining completely, from alcohol while you’re on vacation.
If this doesn’t sound like fun to you, then make an effort to balance how much you’re drinking with other healthy activities, such as eating well, getting plenty of sleep, and drinking lots of water. Staying hydrated, especially if you’re in the sun a lot or walking around more than usual, will go a long way toward mitigating alcohol’s dehydrating effects. If you find yourself getting dehydrated, switch to water or a drink with electrolytes in it, such as a sports drink or coconut water.
14. Pace Yourself
My favorite travel itineraries are jam-packed from sunup to sundown, but running yourself into the ground can be a recipe for disaster. As tempting as it may be to over-plan every single hour when you’re on vacation, carve out some time for relaxing and resting. If you’re not a napper, find a local coffee shop or park where you can at least sit for a while and rest your feet.
Sightseeing is one of the best parts of vacation, but not if you’re too tired and sick to enjoy the sights. Especially during the first few days at a new destination, when everyone is recovering from jet lag and getting into the swing of vacation, allow a bit of time in the schedule to rest and recover. Your immune system will thank you.
15. Work Out
You might be thinking to yourself, “Working out on vacation? Blasphemy!” But hear me out. Even if you don’t lace up your sneakers and run five miles every morning, moving your body can help you stay healthy and happy on a trip.
Pack some comfortable clothing for doing yoga or stretches in your hotel room to combat the effects of being crammed into a tiny airplane or car seat for hours at a time. Spread your arms and legs out on the bed and breathe deeply through your nose for a few minutes every morning or evening. Try to take a walk if you’ve been sitting on the beach all day. You’d be surprised by how much these little things can help you stay healthy and feel happy and relaxed on vacation.
What To Do If You Get Sick on Vacation
If, despite all your precautions, you still find yourself coming down with a sore throat or upset stomach on your trip, here’s how to handle it.
16. Drink Plenty of Water & Avoid Alcohol
Drinking lots of water will ensure that your body isn’t fighting dehydration in addition to whatever else it’s tackling. Staying hydrated also helps your kidneys do their job of filtering waste from your body.
In that same vein, avoid alcohol if you’re feeling sick. It dehydrates you, exacerbates symptoms such as headaches and body aches, and can also make your body less able to fight off infections and other ailments.
17. Get Plenty of Rest
Instead of powering through a full day of sightseeing, curl up at your accommodations with a book or movie and try to rest. You might not have envisioned yourself spending an entire day of your vacation holed up in bed with Netflix, but it’s still better than being at work, and it’ll help you recover faster than if you plow ahead with your full itinerary while feeling awful.
18. Eat Bland Foods
When looking for something to sustain yourself while recovering on the road, stick to bland, plain foods. Avoid raw foods, dairy, anything that may not be fresh, and anything that has been handled by a number of people. Instead, opt for white rice, bread or plain digestive biscuits, and plain pasta.
If you’re suffering from a sore throat or other flu-like symptoms, natural cold and flu remedies such as hot tea or water with lemon can be soothing and may also help open up your sinuses.
If you have gastrointestinal distress, stick to very bland, processed foods like plain crackers or cereal. Be sure to hydrate well and look for liquids with electrolytes to help you combat dehydration. Once you’re feeling more stable, you can reintroduce dairy in the form of yogurt, which usually contains probiotics, or live bacteria that are good for your digestive system and gut health.
Reintroduce caffeine slowly as it can be hard on your stomach and tends to dehydrate you. Start with weak tea and work your way up from there. Avoid alcohol until you’re feeling completely recovered, or you may just put yourself back at square one.
19. Get Help
If you find yourself completely knocked out by illness while you’re on the road, it may be time to ask for help. Start with the front desk if you’re staying at a hotel and ask if they can recommend a doctor or hospital that takes foreigners and last-minute patients. If you’re staying in accommodations that don’t have a front desk, look online to see if there’s a local physician or clinic nearby that might be able to see you.
Alternatively, you can see if your primary care physician at home can give you some care suggestions or refer a clinic remotely via phone, video chat, or email. If you have a travel buddy who isn’t sick, you can send them to a pharmacy or store to stock up on supplies, including any medicine you may not have with you in your travel kit.
If you’ve been sick for more than 24 hours, have an extremely high fever (above 102 F), or if you have flu-like symptoms and are visiting an area that’s known for malaria, it may be time to call in the big guns. Contact your insurance provider and see what they recommend based on your symptoms and coverage. You can also contact the local U.S. Embassy or Consulate for assistance through the U.S. Embassies, Consulates, and Diplomatic Missions website.
Finally, if you have travel insurance, contact the provider to see what they can do to help, whether that’s getting you in at a local hospital or figuring out how to arrange transport back home.
Nothing ruins a trip like getting so sick you never leave the hotel room or missing a long-anticipated tour or prepaid reservation because you feel awful. Staying healthy on vacation doesn’t have to feel like a sacrifice; doing just a bit to help you and your family avoid falling sick will keep your trip from getting derailed.
Have you ever gotten sick while on vacation? What did you do to get better? What’s in your family’s go-to travel kit?