Why do I always get sick before I travel on vacation?
September 10, 2015 1:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm due to fly overseas on vacation next week for the first time in five years. There is a bunch of stress surrounding it: I have to finish a bunch of work before leaving, it's the first time I'm vacationing internationally since my divorce nearly three years ago, etc. And, since yesterday, I've been getting post-nasal drip, sore throat, chills, etc.

However, the stresses specific to this trip aside, I've almost always threatened to or gotten sick before going on a big, special vacation (i.e., not a routine trip to visit family), especially if flying is involved.

My question, then: Is it medically possible that, by experiencing stress about an upcoming trip, I can actually, consistently fall prey to a cold? Am I somehow lowering my resistance or increasing inflammation or whatever to make myself more susceptible?

It seems hard to believe, but the reason I've chosen to go anon here is because it's embarrassing to think that I could do that to myself time and again.

Any advice on either the medical feasibility of this happening outside of my imagination or on ways to preempt these behaviors would be appreciated. From the cold standpoint, I do neti flushes, salt water gargles, vitamin C/Airborne doses, extra sleep, etc. But why would I sabotage a trip (nonrefundable everything) I really want to take and enjoy?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I just recently saw news about how a study showed that lack of sleep/poor sleep hygiene increases your susceptibility to colds. If you're anxious about a preparing for a trip and it affects your sleep, even temporarily, it could affect your vulnerability to catching what is going around.

"Prather noted that animal and patient investigations have shown that "when an otherwise healthy person is (temporarily) deprived of an entire night of sleep, we see fairly robust changes in things like which types of immune cells are circulating in the blood and what types of chemical messengers are released from cells that aid in immune system communication.""

My understanding in the past was that this was related to immune suppression from increased adrenaline and cortisol.
posted by vunder at 1:54 PM on September 10, 2015

For what it is worth, this exact same thing happens to me.
posted by OrangeDisk at 2:37 PM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Supposedly stress can increase cortisol, right? Well, cortisol and corticosteroids suppress lymphocytes, and lymphocytes work to kill invading stuff like bacteria, etc., so there's actually a reason people say that stress is bad for the immune system.

I hope you can relax some, feel better, and enjoy your trip!
posted by whoiam at 2:37 PM on September 10, 2015

Yeah. Sorry, I have no special medical understanding, but FWIW this exact same thing used to happen to me all the time. Except it happened as I relaxed so, usually two or three days into the holiday. I always felt like I'd been holding the illness at bay because I couldn't afford to get sick (too much work) and then when I could afford it, I immediately did. Like I had been storing it up.

It eventually stopped happening, and I felt like that was because my overall stress level went down for a variety of reasons.

You did not ask this but if you're going to fly congested take a LOT of pseudoephedrine before and during the flight. You will be miserable otherwise.
posted by Susan PG at 11:27 PM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Exactly the same for me as Susan PG. When highly stressed I seem to function but just barely. When a break appears and I relax, I get sick, like clockwork. I think the immune system needs to rest and it does so once things feel safe, and then whatever is being barely held off takes over. Like Susan,, this pattern is less common now that my life is a bit less stressful. Anecdotally, this is really common among people in my life.

Don't be hard on yourself. You're not doing it on purpose and you're not intentionally sabotaging your trips. It's a natural response to stress. Get some rest and enjoy your vacation. When you come back, think about ways to reduce stress on your everyday life.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:52 AM on September 11, 2015

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