Healthy Holiday Travel Tips

Stress and sickness shouldn’t be part of your “reason for the season.” From home to your destination, you can bring some healthy travel habits with you during this busy time of year.

By Bevin Clare
November/December 2018

When we think about holiday travel, it may seem like there are more reasons to stay home than to have an adventure. For many of us, the potential stress and possibility of getting sick during a time of year when we want to celebrate can give us pause in our planning. Don’t despair — the joys and excitement of holiday travel outweigh the negatives! While we can’t do much about the challenges of family dynamics or the busyness of airports and train stations, there are many things we can do to keep ourselves steady, thriving, and healthy while traveling during the busiest weeks of the year.

Photo by Queren King-Orozco

Stress and Susceptibility

There are two main reasons we tend to fall under the weather when we travel during the holidays. The first is the impact of cumulative and ongoing stress. Where do we see this? While there’s often a lot of joy and fun this time of year, it can be accompanied with an increase in sugar and alcohol, a change in schedule with more late nights, and increased personal interactions, especially if your holidays include family visits. The holidays can also create complex feelings for people who have mixed associations with the season, or those who find the financial aspects of gift-giving overwhelming. If you add travel on top of this, you’re looking at a reasonably high amount of holiday stress, even if everything goes perfectly.

The second reason for sickness is exposure to a greater variety of pathogens. It doesn’t take a science degree to know that sitting in close proximity to a large number of people and breathing recycled air for a long period of time can increase chances of exposure to organisms and pathogens. Our immune systems are readily prepared to deal with them, and general exposure for healthy individuals typically isn’t a problem. On an airplane, however, we might be exposed to something in greater concentration and for a longer duration, which can increase susceptibility. In a 2007 paper, one research group found that, on average, about 40 percent of airline passengers carried a pathogen after their flights. The majority of discovered pathogens were viral, and the most common were influenza and parainfluenza, followed by adenoviruses. Although this number is concerning, it’s worth noting that while 40 percent of these individuals were carriers, this study doesn't indicate that they became ill, as being an asymptomatic carrier isn't uncommon with respiratory infections.

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