Flying a lot. How not to get sick?
August 24, 2016 3:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to be flying a lot over the next year, as much as a few times per week. These will almost all be long flights, both cross-country flights in the US and overseas trips. What are your best tips to feel good and not get sick?

I often get colds while traveling. I've read the other threads on this, and I've loaded up with nasal spray, zinc lozenges, a pashmina, etc. I want to be more prepared and ward off illness during this long year of frequent travel.

My special snowflakes:
- I will have a permanent place to stay in most of the locations that I'll be flying to. So I can keep vitamins, fresh food, warm clothes, or whatever I need there. What should I keep at each end?
- I will be flying from warm places to cold places and back, so I'll be encountering very different weather. What has worked for you to protect you against illness caused by environmental change?
- I'm going to end up having some red-eye flights. What are your best tips for feeling good during the flight and being sane at the destination?
- What should I do before I leave each place, in the air, and when I land to stay healthy?
- I will be in major cities, with access to medical care, massages, etc. in each place, if needed.
posted by 3491again to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Sleep. Get your rest.
posted by ReluctantViking at 3:36 PM on August 24, 2016

Stay hydrated, get decent sleep, wash your hands frequently, and touch your face as little as possible if you haven't washed your hands recently.
posted by rtha at 3:38 PM on August 24, 2016 [11 favorites]

Travel noise-cancelling headphones and a good playlist (for me, classic music and birdsong) makes it easier for me to rest if not actually sleep on flights. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 3:40 PM on August 24, 2016

Hello fellow constant-traveler.

-Get up to date on your vaccinations (i.e. get a flu shot as soon as you're able; I'm an epidemiologist/toxicologist and am obliged to say this because, yes, it is a huge help even when the annual vaccine reformulation produces a less-protective vaccine like happened last year).
-Steady sleep patterns are helpful. I can't sleep on planes, so I try to factor that into my travel plans (I'll fly in a full day early if I'm going overseas just so I can ease in to the time zone-appropriate sleep cycle).
-Steady exercise is helpful.
-Handwashing and mouth-covering (with the inside of your elbow) is paramount.
-Vitamins and supplements might give you a placebo effect sense that you're better off, but they won't help unless you have some medically legitimate deficiency.
-Be willing to postpone travel if you do come down with something. Stop the transmission cycle by staying home. I realize this isn't always feasible, but it needs to be a consideration (and here's some advice; there are a number of airline-specific considerations related to this issue, so don't hesitate to call your carrier when in doubt).
-If you have bad allergies, consider taking an antihistamine a leading up to travel. Having irritated nasal/laryngeal/etc. tissues can make your tissues a little more leaky, which can make it easier for pathogens to get a foothold in you.
-Stay hydrated. Water's great.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:19 PM on August 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

Absolutely noise reducing ear/headphones. I have a pair of these Bose earphones and they are amazing and worth every penny. I can't recommend them enough. I had a cheaper (Sony $120) pair and they were ... ok, but not in the same ballpark as these ones. It allows me to listen to music far clearer, is less tiring during my (many) flights each month, and if someone had told me how much difference it would make to the flying experience I would never have believed them.

Other than that, planning ahead and TSA Pre or Global traveller programmes (as appropriate) makes flying a TON less stressful for me. Because no security lines to speak of almost anywhere I go means I don't stress about how to get to airports on time so much, and also probably knocks 30 minutes to an hour per trip I spend in airports, which certainly adds up as time goes on.

Other than that, a good carry on bag is something I really find makes life easier. Good organisation and a pocket for everything (passport, earphones, chargers and the like) and keeping my travel bag packed and filled (including toiletries) between trips takes a huge load off, too. I have two of most things - one travel and one for home - like chargers (Laptop/phone) and this reduces almost to zero the amount of packing and unpacking I do of things that would be an issue if I forget them. Travel stuff stays in my travel bag and I just swap out clean clothes for the laundry (carry a laundry bag in your luggage too!), fill up contact lens supplies/grab my glasses and I am packed and I can be ready for my next trip in 5-10 minutes.

As with a lot of things in my life, if I do them more than once I tend to spend some time on minimising the effort involved. Now sometimes I am ready for a sudden trip so quickly that I worry that I have forgotten something. Fortunately, I never have because the process means I have everything I need. The more stuff that can stay in my travel kit permanently the better, as far as I am concerned.

One other thing - carry onto the plane at least one change of clothes if you check a bag. Especially if you have work or otherwise specific clothes you need on your first day there. It's one of those insurance things - if you carry them on, you won't need them. If you check all your clothes, you will have to wear a hotel robe to your first meeting because they lost your bag. Again.
posted by Brockles at 4:21 PM on August 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I flew 30K miles this year, spread out over 15+ flights, domestic and international--and it was the first time in my life I didn't get sick after flying. Below are my tips.

-Start a regimen of chelated zinc. This was the biggest thing I changed; I did all of the next steps previously, and would still get sick. If you only pick one thing to do, take chelated zinc! Make sure to get the chelated kind, not just regular zinc. The regular stuff can make you really nauseous. On preview, sure, it could be the placebo effect, but I really think it helped.

-The absolute soonest you can change your watch and phone time to the time it currently is in your final destination without it affecting your ability to catch connecting flights, do it. Do not for one second think about the time zone difference, "oh, ha ha, I'm having dinner now but it's really breakfast time". No. It is now and will always be the time that it is in Italy, or wherever it is that you're going, regardless of the fact that you're in a plane on the runway at JFK.

-Related, the minute you're on your longest flight, take a sleeping pill. Wrap up with a pashmina or scarf, get comfortable, slather your face and hands in rich moisturizer, put in earplugs and one of these life-changing eyemasks , and pass out. Do not wake up for food service. You should have brought your own food, anyways. Forget about movies, or catching up on work, or reading. Your goal is to sleep through as much of the existential time limbo as possible.

-Wear compression socks. I have no idea why but they work, and not just for preventing blood clots. I wore them for my longest haul overseas flight and did not feel as crummy and dehydrated as I usually do after flying, despite only drinking 1/8 of my usual flight water intake to prevent having to wake up (see above) to use the restroom.

-Consider building out your supplements; I also take a daily fish oil, probiotic, Vitamin D, and magnesium. I think of these, the probiotic probably helps the most with immunity.

-No drinking during your flight, or the day before and after. Alcohol lowers your immune system; some people are more susceptible than others, but it really affects me so I don't do it. Related, if you have to have coffee or tea in flight, no dairy. Water and nutritious, whole foods. As mentioned above, if you can pack your own food you will feel so much more in control of your schedule (which is the goal); some options are apple with peanut butter and granola sandwiches, carrot sticks and little packets of hummus; veggie/avocado sandwiches, homemade granola bars, etc. There's a good blog post about it here.

-For the love of god don't touch your face or put your hands in your mouth at any time during the flight. If you have to eat something with your hands, use hand sanitizer first! And no nail biting, teeth picking, etc.!

-When you wake up you should only have an hour or so (maybe less!) left of your flight. Now is the time to get up, use the restroom, wash your face and reapply moisturizer, brush your teeth, and take a flight attendant up on a cup of coffee. Now you have had a full night's sleep and you are ready to greet the day when you land! If you wake up and you have more than an hour left of the flight, zzzzzt. Do not pass go, do not get up, make yourself go back to sleep.
posted by stellaluna at 4:25 PM on August 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

Healthy snacks! Granted I am diabetic and mostly vegetarian so this is pretty much a necessity for me, but I find my flights go much better if I have a supply of Tammy-friendly things to eat. My recommendations: fruits, nuts, nut butters, sandwiches (either homemade or from places other than the airport.)

I try and sleep on flights, but failing that, I either read something that doesn't require much brainpower, or watch terrible movies. Somehow things I could never watch normally become engrossing 30,000 feet in the air.

Also! Definitely pack a spare pair of underwear (if not a change of clothes) and a toothbrush. It will come in handy if ever you are super delayed.
posted by Tamanna at 4:28 PM on August 24, 2016

I've done a ton of work-related travel and used to get sick a lot. Through trial-and-error, here's what I do now:

I carry hand sanitizer and use it frequently. On the plane, I wipe down the arm rests and tray table and entertainment system with disinfectant wipes. When I sleep I cover my nose and mouth with a wrap, and if somebody on the flight is obviously sick I wear a face mask, even though I assume it makes me look like a paranoid freak. I drink a lot of water on flights: as much as I can stand.

On red-eyes and long flights I wear comfortable pajama-like clothing, like yoga pants and a sweatshirt. I drink one glass of alcohol and take a benadryl to get to sleep. Noise-cancelling earphones are unbelievably helpful.

I've been sick in cities where I don't speak the language, and hunting down medication in those circumstances can be really miserable and time-consuming. So now I bring with me a little case that holds ibuprofen, ephedrin, benadryl, loratadine, melatonin, C, zinc, plus supplements designed to support the immune system and stave off sickness.

I get a deep-tissue massage before leaving for a trip, and if I'm feeling super-battered after a flight I'll get a quick chair massage at one of the airport places, as well.

I try to arrive in a new location 24 hours before I need to work, to give myself time to adjust. And I try to spend time outside as soon as possible after landing. (Like, if I land in Europe from North America at 9AM, I will try to spend the entire morning walking around whatever city I'm in.) After sitting still and breathing stale air for so long, being outside feels good, plus the sun helps with jetlag.

Plus in general, I try not to push myself too hard. Like, if I accomplish nothing on the plane but watching bad movies and napping, or if I sleep for 10 hours after I land in a new city, I do not berate myself. I aim to conserve my energy for when I need it.
posted by Susan PG at 4:59 PM on August 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I traveled a ton a couple of years ago and never got sick -- and I am a person who gets sick more than she ought to -- and I credit it to probiotics and washing my hands as much as humanly possible.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 5:00 PM on August 24, 2016

Exercise regularly, even and especially at your destination. Good for your mental health as well as your physical health (and it can help get you on the correct new time zone). Don't forget the mental part, excessive travel is emotionally challenging. (This is my week home this month! Yay?)

I also have the Bose in-ear phones and I would pay for them again, they are fabulous. I can sleep in them so much more easily than in my old over-ear noise cancellers.
Similarly, if you're travelling that much, it's worth joining frequent flyer systems; some of the perks are silly but some (extra leg room, shower access in overseas connecting airports, electrical plugs) can make flying less stressful; less stress= better health.

Stay hydrated. I carry a water bottle, but on long flights I also try to sleep with something loosely draped over my mouth since I'm a mouth breather and otherwise get way dry and Expose myself to every germ my fellow flyers have.

Carry a small quick-fix kit with you. Mine has allergy meds, decongestant, Benadryl (foolproof antihistamine plus it knocks you out, both are useful), Advil, and I am considering adding caffeine pills (I get headaches now without coffee, thanks >50k miles the last n years). Ymmv on these if you are travelling places with restrictive medicine rules.

I also have bandaids, emergency snack food (chocolate, nuts), and safety pins. And a travel wallet that contains transit cards for frequently visited cities as well as common currencies. Lowers my stress, saves me time, got me successfully to my destination last year when I started getting ill on the plane.

If you do get sick while travelling, do what you can to heal yourself- eg take time off, have your cold-treatment-of-choice so you can rest, and yeah try to isolate too so you don't spread it further.
posted by nat at 5:17 PM on August 24, 2016

Everything I have read on the subject (as in, science based and not conjecture) indicates that contrary to popular belief, it's not recycled cabin air that makes people sick on airplanes--it's germs on rarely cleaned surfaces like your tray table, armrests and seatbelt buckle.

So: while flying, wipe those surfaces with disinfecting wipes, wash your hands a lot and don't touch your face.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:53 PM on August 24, 2016

Earplanes if you're prone to sinus infections. Put them in when you sit down and don't take them out until the door is open when you land.
posted by brujita at 6:18 PM on August 24, 2016

I think the first year of heavy travel is like the first year your kid is in day care - you catch everything. Then your immune system catches on, and you don't get sick nearly as often.

I do a ton of short haul flights, at times many flights each week with lots of germ exposure. Regarding not getting sick, it's all about keeping my immune system in peak condition which is pretty basic stuff. Get enough sleep. Wash my hands. Wipe down the tray table and armrest during cold and flu season. Eat a reasonable diet. Manage my stress level. Get a flu shot. If someone is sick, then I give them a wide berth and wash my hands.

In other words, the same stuff I do at home.

I'm not germaphobic, and I'm not constantly using hand sanitizer. I get maybe one cold every other year - nearly always when I don't manage my stress, and I get too little sleep.

BTW, I too have the Bose headphones linked, and they are fabulous - so much so that I purchased them for staff members who travel a lot. They do help me meditate or sleep on flights.
posted by 26.2 at 7:40 PM on August 24, 2016

Could also consider wearing a surgical mask. I poked around a little to see the current research, but it seems like they can be effective at least for some cold/flu viruses. They also prevent you from touching your nose and mouth.

I know it's not as common in the US, but its very common in East Asia and I see a non-zero amount of them on domestic US flights as well. My wife wears one on every flight, although thats more because of dry air.
posted by thefoxgod at 7:40 PM on August 24, 2016

> You should have brought your own food, anyways.

Oh man, this. It's not a magic bullet for not getting sick, but if you're traveling a lot, you will experience delays - in the terminal and on the tarmac and in the air - and you know what? Sometimes planes run out of food before they get to you, and sometimes the options in the terminal suck or are closed. So always pack some good snacks: a good mix of protein-y things (nuts, cheese, jerky) that will keep you from feeling hangry and also treats because when you are sitting on the tarmac or circling the airport as your plane waits for a landing slot to open, sometimes you really need M&Ms or special cookies or whatever your guilty sweet is.

Also yes, get pre-check or global and never take your damn shoes off or baggie of liquids out again.
posted by rtha at 8:09 PM on August 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I once took a trans-Atlantic flight and my seatmate was an older guy who'd flown a lot. He told me that lining your nose with Neosporin was one of the best ways to fend off germs on a flight, plus kept nasal passages lubricated rather than dry. I haven't gotten to test this theory but it is a cheap experiment.
posted by Riverine at 7:17 AM on August 25, 2016

I fly around 200k miles a year and just assume I'll always have a cough or jetlag (or both).
posted by foodgeek at 1:54 AM on August 26, 2016

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