The days are growing longer, the temperatures are climbing and for many, it’s finally time to take a long-awaited trip. In addition to planning what to pack and where to eat while you’re away, make plans to stay healthy whether you’re hitting the road or flying the friendly skies.
We spoke with Emily Sickbert-Bennett, PhD, director of UNC Hospitals Infection Prevention, about how to protect yourself and your family while traveling.
“Infectious diseases are always around us, and being sick definitely puts a crimp in your plans, but we have so many infection prevention strategies available that we can use to make traveling as safe as possible this year,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says.
These small steps can yield big payoffs when it comes to staying healthy and avoiding serious illness.
1. Wear a mask in crowded areas—especially on planes.
One silver lining of the past three years is that we’ve learned a lot about simple measures that can keep respiratory illnesses from spreading: wearing a mask, keeping your distance from others and frequent hand-washing.
Masks are no longer required on planes or in most other public spaces, but there’s no reason not to wear one to reduce your risk of catching COVID-19, a cold or other viruses, Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says.
“We know masking works. It not only protects you from catching COVID-19 and other viruses, it prevents you from spreading a virus to other people if you’re ill and don’t know it,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says. “When you’re in situations where you can’t easily move around and people are near you, consider having a mask available, even if you don’t intend to wear it.”
For example, on an airplane, you may be seated next to someone who is visibly sick but not masked. “Having a mask available to put on could save you several days of lost time on your own vacation,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says. “Or if you’re on a plane and start to feel sick, you want to have that mask available.”
Physical distancing is still effective and can be a good strategy if you have a trip or visit coming up and want to stay healthy.
And good old-fashioned hand-washing continues to work against many cold viruses and the dreaded stomach bug.
2. Make sure you are up to date on all your vaccinations.
By now we know that vaccination does not stop every COVID-19 or flu infection, but it does greatly reduce your risk of hospitalization or death.
Everyone ages 6 months and up is eligible for both the COVID-19 vaccine and flu shot. Be sure you and your family are up to date on your COVID vaccine and boosters before traveling, and get your flu shot each fall. Babies and adults 65 and older also benefit from the pneumonia vaccine.
Vaccines are good for individuals and communities, Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says.
“Vaccines are very effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalization. And at a population level, vaccines also prevent viruses from continuing to circulate so widely,” she says.
3. Change your plans if you feel sick, and plan what you’ll do if you get sick while traveling.
If you have symptoms of COVID-19, the flu or another contagious illness, don’t expose others. It’s especially important to protect older adults, immunocompromised people and infants, but no one should be exposed to a virus if it can be prevented.
If you’re traveling, think about how you would handle a COVID-19 diagnosis or another illness in your family. Travel insurance or refundable tickets can help provide peace of mind and allow you to make changes to your itinerary.
Talk to your doctor about how you can access treatment, in person or via telehealth, and how to get antiviral medication on the road.
“Be cognizant of your own health and how you’re feeling, and be willing to be flexible,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says.
Talk to your doctor about receiving a COVID-19 booster or your flu shot before traveling. Need a doctor? Find one near you.