Millions of Americans will board planes, trains and automobiles to visit family and friends this holiday season. And the number of germs that will accompany each passenger? Too many to count.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, December is a peak flu month. Mix that with increased holiday travel, and you’ve got a recipe for sore throat, headache, fever, muscle aches, congestion and cough that no one wants to share.
Sharing is not always caring
Adults typically get two to three colds per year and children can get up to eight or more. While germs can lurk most everywhere you go, cold and flu viruses are more easily shared in close quarters. People with flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away, according to the CDC.
Ascension Seton family practice physician, Jonathan MacClements, MD, said if you’re already ill, it might be better to hold off on traveling until you’re better so you don’t spread infection to others. Seton is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.
“Talk to your doctor if you have any acute illnesses, chronic illness, or are pregnant so that you may be advised if it is safe to travel, especially if you are going to travel by air,” MacClements said.
When you can’t change travel plans, consider a surgical mask. Though not a popular fashion choice, wearing a mask can prevent you from sharing germs each time you cough or sneeze, he said.
According to the CDC, most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Or, although it happens less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose.
The cold virus can survive on hard surfaces for several hours and on our hands for about two hours.
How do you know when it’s more than a cold?
Flu and cold are common during the fall and winter, but because symptoms are caused by the viruses and not the weather, they can occur any time of the year, MacClements said.
“The flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses but their symptoms are slightly different as they are caused by different viruses,” he said.
The flu tends to be worse than a cold because it can result in serious health problems like pneumonia or even death. Colds typically only have symptoms like runny or stuffy nose.
“The flu can look like a more serious cold with fevers, cough, sore throat, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. Fortunately most flu symptoms can be prevented by receiving your annual flu shot, sneezing into your sleeve, and regular hand washing with antiseptic gels or regular soap and water,” MacClements said.
Best recipe for cold and flu-free travel
While you may not be able to control when and where you are exposed to germs, you can support your immune system to help give yourself a fighting chance against holiday sickness. No matter how you travel, consider these tips for getting home for the holidays cold and flu free:
- Wash your hands, often. Use soap and water and scrub for at least 20 seconds. Hum, sing or whistle the tune of “Happy Birthday,” then rinse and dry.
- Be mindful of eating and drinking. Especially if you’re traveling to another country, drink only purified water and pasteurized milk to help avoid diarrhea. Eat thoroughly-cooked food while it’s still hot and try to avoid any salads or salsa that may have been sitting around—it may have been snacked on by flies or bugs.
- Carry your labeled daily medications. If you’re traveling abroad, it may be hard to find a pharmacy so keep your medications on-hand.
- Do a little research. If you’re going somewhere you’ve never been before, hit up Google before you go to help avoid injuries, high risk activities and crime areas.
- Pack hand sanitizer. If you don’t have access to soap and water, alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol is second best.
- Take care of yourself—mind, body and spirit. Eat well-balanced meals including fruits, vegetables and lean meats. Stay hydrated. Exercise regularly and reduce stress through yoga or meditation.
- The flu vaccine is a proven way to prevent the flu virus. It takes time for the vaccine to get to work, so those who are not allergic to the vaccine, and especially children, the chronically ill and the elderly, should get vaccinated in October or November. The flu season extends into the spring, so now versus never can still boost your chances of making it through the flu season symptom-free.
Recipes don’t always turn out as expected. If you find yourself with cold and flu-like symptoms that don’t improve within a week or two, call your doctor to rule out other causes of illness.