For those rushing out the door on the way to Grandma’s house for the holiday, here’s the most important safe-travel tip we can offer. In three words: Wash your hands.
Wash them long enough to sing the ABC song, says Dr. Laura Hanson of Texas Woman’s University. Otherwise, microorganisms you’ve brought to the surface with that initial scrub won’t be completely washed away.
During the holidays, more people get sick because colder weather forces us indoors, says Jan Jowitt, director of nursing and infection-control officer at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. “You have a lot more contact with individuals in closed areas.”
Plus, the same people who may stay home the rest of the year when they’re sick feel compelled to stagger into public places during November and December. Every time you touch a doorknob, refrigerator-door handle, remote control, water faucet, gas nozzle, or you reach into a bowl of peanuts - all well-utilized places, especially during the holidays - well, let’s just say you’re not the first person to do so.
Although sometimes getting sick is inevitable; simple steps can stack the stay-well odds in your favor.
Maintain your routine. Make sure you’re meticulous about this, says Christina Vargas, a Dallas Ayurveda health practitioner and yoga therapist. Veering from your usual bedtime, types of foods eaten, as well as sleep and exercise regimens can throw off your schedule and thus, your immune system.
“Our bodies are made to protect us from getting infections,” says Dr. Emily Hebert, a preventive medicine physician at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas. “But when we’re in the prime for illness - lack of sleep, stress, coming off a recent illness - that revs up our risk.”
Carry hand sanitizer. “I’d never even given thought to the gas pump,” Jowitt says. “But you can imagine, thousands and thousands come through and start pumping gas. You don’t know where their hands have been. Then after you touch the pump, you get into your truck and see, ‘Oh, there’s my McDonald’s burger.’ That’s how people get what they call the stomach bug. There may be fecal matter present that doesn’t belong to you. I know it sounds disgusting.”
Exercise. Even if you can’t do what you normally do, modify. “Exercise helps with metabolism, it helps with our good humor, it keeps us (to be) energetic and healthy,” Jowitt says.
Cough and sneeze into your elbow. Particles from a sneeze can contain the influenza virus, Jowitt says. “If you’re having a conversation and use your hands or a tissue to catch the sneeze, some of the particles come through your fingers and through the base of the Kleenex. Say I’m standing next to you and about the time I need to take a deep breath to go on about my conversation, that’s where I can be exposed.”
On an airplane
Wear a mask if you’re sick. Preferably, don’t travel at all. “You also don’t know what other people have,” Hebert says. “There could be a cancer patient, and if you give them the flu, that could be potentially fatal.”
Bring your own snacks. Maria-Paula Carrillo, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Lemond Nutrition in Plano, makes sure to have packets of nut butters, which she spreads onto fruit or onto whole-grain crackers.
Limit sodium intake and carbonated beverages. “You risk feeling bloated,” Carrillo says. “By the time you get off the plane, your shoes may be tight. You may not feel so good.” Limit alcohol intake, too, she says; it’ll hit you a lot harder when you’re 35,000 feet above the Earth.
Rely on water, and if it makes you use the bathroom more often, so much the better. Moving is a good thing. Plus, it will help limit your risk of blood clots. One warning: Airplane restrooms are notoriously germ-ridden, so be sure to use a paper towel to touch the flush lever or faucet.
Carry essential oils. “Lavender oil is antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiviral,” Vargas says, as well as calming. “Put a little on a napkin or handkerchief and just inhale it.” Peppermint oil can reduce motion sickness, she says. “Take the oil in a container and hold it to your abdomen and slowly bring it to your chest till you smell it,” she says. “It’s also great for the respiratory system.”
In a hotel room
Use hand wipes liberally. You’re more likely to encounter unwanted microorganisms on light switches, remote controls and bedside lamps than on the more obvious places like the toilet, says Hanson of TWU.
Still, “It wouldn’t hurt to wipe down the flush handle either. It won’t take very long. It’s quick, easy stuff.” Change wipes frequently so what you wipe off one thing won’t end up on the next. One study, she says, showed that an hour after someone with a cold left a hotel room, more than half the people who touched items that person had handled would pick up the virus from what they touched.
Keep bedbugs at bay. “For bacteria and viruses, the way the hotels wash sheets would kill those,” Hanson says. But bedbugs hang out in mattresses, so check mattress and pillow seams for eggs. If you can’t switch rooms, spray yourself with insect repellent.
“Put your luggage in the bathtub, which is one of the least likely places for bedbugs to be. Don’t put it in the dark closet.”
Don’t go barefoot. Wear flip-flops, slippers or socks.
In a restaurant
Bring out more hand wipes. Most travel infections reported come from restaurants, Hanson says. “Just do a quick wipe down. How do you know the last group who sat at your table didn’t have a kid who sneezed and then reached out for the ketchup bottle or the syrup?” Additionally, she says, despite the “Employees Must Wash Hands” signs in restaurant restrooms, studies have shown sometimes as few as 5 percent of employees heed them.
Be diligent about eating produce. Chances are, holiday meals will offer more starches than greens. That’s fine, but include the good-for-you colorful foods, too.
Take probiotics. Whether in pill form or in yogurt, they can help if you have a sensitive stomach and are eating foods you’re not used to, Hebert says.
Stay hydrated. “Drink tons of water,” Hebert says. Not ice water, Vargas warns, because it “reduces our digestive fire, our metabolism. Soda, coffee, alcohol, excessive amounts of sugar weaken the immune system.”
Don’t share. If your sister’s drink or your kid’s mashed potatoes look delicious, get your own, Jowitt says. Saliva is, after all, a bodily fluid, and “other people’s forks, food and glasses have plenty that could be contaminated with virus bacteria.”
A final reminder about the most important step:
Wash your hands. The experts just can’t seem to say that enough, with a caveat.
“If everyone’s in the house together, even with the best hygiene practices, it’s hard to keep from getting sick,” Hebert says. “It stinks.”
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