They say travel is good for the soul. But what’s good for your soul isn’t always great for your body.
Frequent travelers are prone to several common travel illnesses that can turn your dream trip upside down. The last thing you want on the trip you’ve planned for a year is to spend any part of it in bed because you don’t feel up to doing anything.
While we can’t change a lot of things in life, if you’re aware of these travel illnesses and know what to do should they happen, you’ll be many steps ahead. This article aims to help prevent your dream trip from getting tanked by the most common travel illnesses…and help you deal with them if they can’t be avoided.
Don’t be afraid to travel because of travel illnesses you “might” encounter. Remember, many of these travel illnesses can happen whether traveling or not.
- Jet lag—some travel illnesses have no respect
- Altitude Sickness―don’t let this travel illness sneak up on you
- Motion Sickness―let’s fix this thing
- Leg Cramps―what we can do to avoid them
- Respiratory Infections―a frequent traveler’s bane
- Traveler’s Diarrhea
- DVT and PE: What you need to know about Deep Vein Thrombosis/Pulmonary Thrombosis and Travel
- The biggest mistake travelers make:
Jet lag—some travel illnesses have no respect
So true. Desynchronosis and flight fatigue are the less common names of the all-too-familiar ailment of jet lag. Jet lag is a non-permanent disorder that results in symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, constipation, dehydration, headache, and daytime sleepiness. And even experienced travelers get it.
It’s caused by rapid travel across time zones. (east to west or west to east) The root cause of jet lag is a disruption of your circadian rhythm, which is the internal clock that regulates your sleeping habits.
Simply put, jet lag occurs when your body is awake but thinks it should be asleep (or vice- versa). Let’s say you live in New York City, but visit Berlin. When it’s 11 p.m. in New York, it’s 5 a.m. in Berlin. If you’re an early bird, you’re waking up at the time when your body wants you to go to sleep. This can have some pretty negative effects until your circadian rhythm readjusts to your new time zone (which usually takes one or two days for every time zone you crossed).
In some cases, jet lag is inevitable. If you’re traveling to the other side of the world, you simply have to anticipate needing time to adjust. When traveling overseas, I like to take a late night flight and sleep most of the way. When I arrive in the morning, I can continue on through the day and not feel the effects.
Here are some other things you might want to try to counter the effects of jet lag:
- Exercise regularly, eat well, and get plenty of sleep before traveling
- Adjust to your new schedule while at home (go to sleep and wake up earlier/later)
- Avoid alcohol on the days leading up to your flight, on the flight, and after your flight
- Avoid caffeine before, during, and after your flight
- Drink a lot of water the week of your flight, especially on the plane and after landing
- Don’t take a mid-day nap when you land
- Break your trip in half if you’re traveling a long distance (stay a night or two somewhere fun mid-way)
Altitude Sickness―don’t let this travel illness sneak up on you
Whether you’re taking a trip to the Alps, hiking Mt. Everest, or just visiting a new country, you’re at risk of experiencing altitude sickness. Adjusting to a new altitude can be tough on our bodies and, like dealing with jet lag, it can often take a few days to acclimatize when visiting a new area.
Altitude sickness manifests in symptoms similar to a hangover. Never had one of those? I’m impressed. Here’s what you’ve missed. Headache, nausea, and extreme fatigue. Those are the most common effects, however, rapid breathing, shortness of breath, and insufficient urine production (dehydration) can also be experienced.
Doing what you can to prevent altitude sickness is always the first choice. One of the most important things to do is stay hydrated. And when possible, plan your trip to visit cities at lower sea levels first and then gradually increase altitude city by city.
When climbing up a mountain, do it slowly to allow for acclimatization. When that’s not possible, you still have options.
- Make sure each member of your travel party is acclimatized before going higher
- Have at least one “rest-day” every few days (sleeping at the same altitude two nights in a row)
- Continue to drink lots of water
- Eat a high-calorie diet
- Avoid smoking, drinking, and using sleeping medication
- Take precautions against sunburn and snow blindness
- Stay at your current altitude once you develop symptoms of altitude sickness—you’ll recover more quickly
- If your symptoms worsen, immediately go to a lower altitude
Motion Sickness―let’s fix this thing
When it comes to motion sickness, some of us are just unlucky. We can be in a car, boat, or plane and immediately we get that queasy feeling. Others never seem to experience it. We’re inclined to think it’s an individual thing, specific to some people, but there’s actually a logical explanation. It’s simply a result of part your brain recognizing that you’re moving, but another part not being aware of it.
For example, your inner ear can sense the movement of the waves on a ship, but perhaps your eyes can’t see them. This causes what we call motion sickness. I never get motion sickness on a boat, but I have had it while reading in a car. That’s because one part of my brain is aware of the landscape moving past me, but another part is focused on my reading material and unaware of the movement.
Some common symptoms of motion sickness are nausea, pale skin, cold sweats, vomiting, dizziness, headache, increased salivation, and fatigue. To avoid these irritating symptoms and motion sickness as a whole, try the following:
- Sit toward the front of the boat/plane/car while keeping your eyes on the horizon
- Don’t read while in motion
- Rest your head against the seat back to stay still
- Turn air vents toward your face
- Avoid smoking and drinking alcohol
- Avoid greasy foods, in addition to anything else that may cause nausea
- And if necessary, there’s always over the counter Dramamine.
Leg Cramps―what we can do to avoid them
We’ve all experienced it—the annoying and sometimes extremely painful leg cramp while sitting in a tiny car or a cramped airplane seat. Some of us get them in the middle of the night after the flight or long car trip.
Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to prevent cramps while traveling.
- Drink plenty of water before, during, and after your trip
- Eat foods high in potassium before, during, and after your trip
- Regularly stretch, stand up, and walk around when in cramped quarters
- Avoid alcohol before, during, and after traveling
- Take a multi-vitamin supplement for a week leading up to your trip
- Consider bringing a Gatorade type drink on board your flight to restore electrolytes
A quick tip: when you get a leg or foot cramps, straighten your leg, push your heel down and draw your toes back toward your face. It works for me and gets rid of the cramp every time.
Respiratory Infections―a frequent traveler’s bane
Airplanes, airports, and all the usual tourist areas where massive crowds gather are breeding grounds for travel illnesses. Bacteria and viruses that can cause an upper respiratory infection (URI) thrive in crowded places. A URI is most often associated with symptoms of runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, cough, and sputum production. The infection results in the inflammation of the mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract and infections can last anywhere from one day to four weeks.
URIs are contracted in a variety of ways, but the biggest travel-related risk is poor air quality.
To avoid a URIs wherever you are:
- Wash your hands often
- Keep your hands away from your face
- Use an antiseptic wipe on items used by many people: airplane trays and armrests, hotel phones, grocery cart handles
- Avoid smoking and tobacco products
- Stay indoors on extremely poor air quality days
- Wear a mask when air quality is poor (on airplanes where people are coughing around you.) I carry one with me just in case.
- Exercise regularly
Not fun…and not much fun to discuss either. But if you travel a lot, especially to developing countries, you’ve probably had TD (AKA Montezuma’s revenge) at least once. I have, and I now bring along Imodium on every trip.
Traveler’s diarrhea is an intestinal infection that occurs usually as a result of eating food created in unsanitary conditions. The countries with the highest risk of contracting traveler’s diarrhea include Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. The risk of infection will vary from fairly low risk in private homes to high risk in food from street vendors.
The most common symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea are:
- Abrupt onset of diarrhea (passage of three or more loose stools a day)
- An urgent need to have a bowel movement
- Abdominal cramps
In most instances, the TD should improve within one or two days without treatment and will be gone completely within a week. It’s rarely life threatening. However, If you or anyone in your group experiences moderate to severe dehydration, persistent vomiting, a high fever, bloody stools, or severe pain in the abdomen or rectum, or if the diarrhea persists longer than a few days, it’s time to contact a doctor instead of attempting to self-medicate.
This is especially relevant for pregnant women and children. Since most over-the-counter remedies, including the one I mentioned earlier, can have side effects and may also be contraindicated if you’re taking meds for other things, it’s important to talk with your doctor about it before you go on a long trip.
Treatment usually includes replacement of fluids and salts lost from the diarrhea. A local pharmacy in most countries will be able to tell you what oral rehydration solutions (ORS) packets and other over-the-counter medications are available. But if you’re going to a developing country, it might be good to check with your pharmacy before you go.
Serious cases will require other medications such as antibiotics, which need to be prescribed by a physician.
What Precautions Should I Take With Food?
When in developing countries, select your food with care. Avoid tap water. I usually take my LifeStraw Go22 Personal Filtered Water Bottle for the countries in question. Otherwise, I drink bottled water. I even brush my teeth with bottled water.
That may sound overcautious, but after my first trip to Venice, years ago, was ruined by a week-long case of Montezuma’s Revenge, I’d rather be overcautious. I traced the TD to a salad I’d eaten earlier that day at a small cafe in the countryside on the way to Venice.
Foods to avoid include:
- Uncooked vegetables and fruit. If you peel fruit yourself, it is generally safe.
- Unpasteurized milk and dairy products
- Raw meat and shellfish
If your food is cooked and steaming hot out of the oven, it’s usually safe. However, some fish, even when cooked, cannot be guaranteed to be safe because of the toxins in its flesh. Check the areas where you intend to travel for reports on toxins in seafood.
DVT and PE: What you need to know about Deep Vein Thrombosis/Pulmonary Thrombosis and Travel
Sometimes dubbed the “economy class syndrome” blood clots, AKA deep vein thrombosis (DVT), is a serious concern for those who travel long distances. Most of the research concerns air travel, but it actually applies to any long-distance travel, whether by plane, train, car or bus. All travel of four hours or more, sitting still in a confined space, can put you at risk for blood clots.
The longer you are immobile, the greater the risk of developing a blood clot. If the blood clot does not resolve on its own, it could break off, travel to the lungs and cause a blockage. The end result is a pulmonary embolism that may or may not be fatal.
Generally, the risk of a blood clot when traveling is small, however, the risk increases with age (after 40). There are other factors that increase risk as well, and I recommend checking the links referenced below to see if any apply and then check with your doctor.
Fortunately, there are measures you can take to reduce this risk when travelling long distances. Most important is to learn the risks and recognize the symptoms.
Symptoms of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
About 50 percent of people with DVT have no symptoms. These are the most common symptoms of DVT occurring in the affected body part (usually the leg or arm):
- Swelling of your leg or arm
- Pain or tenderness that you can’t explain
- Skin that is warm to the touch
- Redness of the skin
If you have any of these symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible.
Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism (PE)
It is possible to have a PE without any symptoms of a DVT. Symptoms of a PE can include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Faster than normal or irregular heartbeat
- Chest pain or discomfort, which usually worsens with a deep breath or coughing
- Coughing up blood
- Lightheadedness, or fainting
If you have any of these symptoms, seek medical help immediately.
How to reduce your risk of blood clots when traveling
- Be aware. Know what to look for. Learn the signs and symptoms of blood clots and listen to your body.
- If you think you may be at risk for blood clots, talk to your doctor. Anyone with a previous blood clot, or a family history of blood clots or an inherited clotting disorder, talk with your doctor to learn how this affects you and your individual risks.
- Get moving. On long trips, even when sitting, you can move your legs frequently and exercise your calf muscles. This will improve the flow of blood. Be sure to get up and stretch your legs. When sitting, straighten your legs and flex your ankles (pulling your toes toward you). Some airlines will suggest pulling each knee up as far as you can to the chest and grasp your lower leg with your hands and hold it there for 15 seconds…and repeat up to 10 times. Doing these exercises help improve the flow of blood in your legs.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration causes blood vessels to narrow and blood to thicken, increasing your risk.
- Avoid alcohol and coffee as they contribute to dehydration.
- Compression stockings may be of benefit for some people. Compression stockings apply gentle pressure on the leg muscles. (for more on DVT, See my article on travel illnesses)
- Avoid regular stockings with tight elastic bands or anything that binds around the leg constricting blood vessels.
- Avoid crossing your legs as this constricts blood vessels.
- Medications and blood clots: Always be sure to follow your physician’s recommendations on medication use, especially if you are on blood thinners, also known as anticoagulants.
- If you know you’re at risk in any way, be sure to talk with your doctor to learn more about how to prevent blood clots.
You can find more information on DVT here.
- CDC – https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/dvt/travel.html
- Medicnennet – http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=40582
The biggest mistake travelers make:
Blisters and sore feet aren’t exactly travel illnesses, but foot problems are the most common problem travelers encounter. And…the most common cause of foot problems while travelling is shoes. The wrong shoes can cause not only discomfort, but also blisters, calluses, corns, and a lot of pain that could make your vacation a disaster.
My dilemma is always comfort vs fashion, and because of limited luggage space, the choice is difficult when my favorite shoes may not be the best for walking miles and miles.
Aside from that dilemma, the truth is that you do need more than one pair of shoes, because even the most comfortable pair can make your feet tired and sore if you wear them 100 percent of the time. Here are a few tips to keep you from making the same blunder I’ve made on more than one occasion.
- Pack the right shoes. That means no new or unworn shoes. If they haven’t been broken in, they could cause the aforementioned discomfort of blisters, corns and other unexpected foot issues.
- Pack several pairs so you have shoes for different activities. If you’re hiking, you need hiking shoes. If you’re canoeing, you need water shoes. Don’t wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row. If those comfy shoes become uncomfortable, you’ll want to have another pair waiting.
- The best shoes for travel are made from flexible, breathable material such as leather, canvas, nylon and suede. Stiff shoes are a prime cause of rubbing irritation and blisters. Make sure the shoe material will allow your skin to breathe so your feet don’t get sweaty. Sweaty feet can cause foot movement inside the shoe which can create rubbing and blisters.
- Flat, cushioned shoes with good arch support is your best bet for a lot of walking. With the multiple choices out there, the fashionista in you should be pleased. A good athletic training shoe will fit the criteria as well and the choices are many. My favorite for walking is any of Skechers Athletic or Go-Walk shoes with the Memory Foam insole. Just remember, more than one pair of this type of shoe is advisable so you can switch off. If you have room, bring along your sexy stilettos and strappy sandals for special occasions, but don’t spend the night standing or you may regret it in the morning. Even the most comfortable shoe isn’t comfortable if your feet are already sore.
- Always pack a pair of flip-flops for around the pool and any moist public area to avoid bacterial and viral infections. I use my flip-flops in hotel rooms as well. I don’t generally wear them for walking, but if you have a blister, sometimes it’s the best option.
Be smart. Knowing how to prevent travel illnesses is as important as knowing what to do if you get one. And…be sure to bring along the right shoes. Your feet will thank you.