Traveling with Kids? Plan Ahead to Stay Well

Editor’s note: This article originally ran June 6, 2022 and was updated June 12, 2023.

Nothing ruins a family vacation like someone getting sick, but being prepared can make the situation more bearable.

UNC Health pediatricians Anita Skariah, DO, and Priyanka Rao, MD, explain which illnesses to watch for and what to pack in case your child does become sick while traveling this summer.

Why Kids Get Sick While Traveling

If your child gets sick while you’re traveling, it might just seem like bad luck. But really, it’s because there are a lot of new surfaces for kids to touch and explore—and where they can pick up new germs.

“On a trip, kids are outside of their controlled environment and exposed to germs they maybe haven’t encountered before that could make them sick,” Dr. Rao says.

Try not to let worry about the possibility of illness take the fun out of the trip. Just make sure you’re prepared to handle it so you can enjoy your time.

Common Illnesses for Summer Travelers

A few common viruses tend to make children sick during the summer.

  • Hand, foot and mouth disease: Extremely common in children younger than 5 and highly contagious, hand, foot and mouth disease is caused by enteroviruses. Symptoms include fever, runny nose, a rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, and ulcers in the mouth.

“The sores inside the mouth can cause pain while eating and drinking,” Dr. Rao says. “For the little ones who won’t be able to tell you that their mouth hurts, look out for if they stop eating and drinking normally.”

  • Common cold/viral upper respiratory infections: You can get the common cold or a respiratory infection any time of the year. Symptoms include fever, runny nose, congestion, sore throat, mild body aches and fatigue.

COVID-19 is included in this category, and may also cause nausea, vomiting and upset stomach. Staying vigilant about hand hygiene is a good way to minimize the spread of germs.

“Kids navigate the world through their hands and mouths, so you have to help them be prepared,” Dr. Skariah says.

  • Gastroenteritis: Often called the stomach flu, gastroenteritis causes vomiting, diarrhea, fever, fatigue and body aches. It can be easily confused with food poisoning, which can also happen during the summer if food is left outside for too long before it is eaten. Food poisoning symptoms tend to be shorter in duration than those from gastroenteritis.

Environmental exposures also commonly cause health issues on vacation:

  • Sunburn: If you plan to spend time outside on your trip, it’s important to protect your child’s skin from sun damage, Dr. Rao says. You can do this by using protective clothing (long sleeves, pants, wide-brimmed hats), applying sunscreen that’s at least SPF 30 (lotion is better than spray) and avoiding direct exposure at peak times (between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.).

“It’s best if you apply sunscreen before your child puts their bathing suit on, so you don’t miss any spots,” Dr. Rao says. “Don’t forget to reapply every 80 to 90 minutes. You can set a timer on your phone to help you remember.”

If your child does get a sunburn, apply aloe vera lotion and cover the area with clothing. If there is any blistering, make an appointment for a doctor to check it out. Sunburn can cause dehydration, so be sure your child drinks lots of water.

  • Heat stroke/heat illness: Kids are quicker to suffer heat-related illness because they don’t sweat as efficiently as adults, Dr. Rao says.

“Make sure to give them lots of breaks and water under a sunshade. Remember that water is best absorbed with food, so make sure to have snacks available,” she says.

  • Swimmer’s ear: This infection of the outer ear canal is caused by water becoming trapped in the ear. It can cause extreme discomfort, especially while sleeping or pulling on the ear. You can treat it with prescription eardrops; your child will need to stay out of the water during treatment.
  • Motion sickness: Motion sickness in the car is caused by sensory mismatch.

“Our eyes, inner ears and nervous system communicate with our brain, and when the messages conflict, it causes us to feel sick,” Dr. Skariah says. “For example, if your inner ear senses movement but your eyes are focused on the pages of a book, it confuses your brain.”

Older kids tend to vomit when experiencing motion sickness, but the symptoms aren’t always as obvious for younger children. Watch for dizziness, sweating, feeling full, drooling, crying and excessive yawning.

If your child does get car sick on the trip, don’t stress. Just pull over to a safe spot and lay them down in the back seat with a cool washcloth on their face. Make sure to bring baby wipes and small scented trash bags for cleanup, as well as a change of clothes. You can discuss with your pediatrician if over-the-counter anti-nausea meds would be safe for your child.

  • Earaches on the plane: If you are traveling by plane, the ascent and descent could be difficult for your child because of the changes in air pressure, Dr. Skariah says.

For babies, it’s best to breastfeed or give them a bottle during takeoff and landing to relieve some of the pressure. If they are older than 3, you can give them a low-sugar lollipop or a sippy cup with water.

“Swallowing helps balance the pressure between the inner ear and the atmospheric pressure changes,” Dr. Skariah says.

When to Contact a Doctor While You’re on Vacation

Your providers want to help you, even if you are traveling. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them if you notice that your child seems off or is showing symptoms of illness.

Go to an urgent care clinic if you observe any of the following symptoms:

  • Fever that doesn’t respond to fever-reducing medicine
  • Inability to keep food down
  • Not urinating at least once every six hours
  • Low energy levels
  • Not drinking water or other liquids

Go to the emergency department if your child:

  • Has a fever that lasts more than five days or that doesn’t respond to fever reducers
  • Has trouble breathing, especially if you notice they are using their ribs and upper abdominal muscles to take in enough air
  • Suffers an injury (such as a broken bone) or trauma (such as a car accident)

Plan Ahead for a Healthy Vacation

While it’s not possible to plan for every situation, there are some things you can do to set yourself up for a smooth trip.

  • Stay current on vaccinations.

Check in with your pediatrician if you’re uncertain about your child’s vaccination status. If your baby is less than 60 days old, you’ll want to minimize their travel, because they are too young for some vaccines that prevent childhood diseases.

  • Maintain a healthy daily routine before the trip and stick to it while traveling.

Prioritize healthy eating and sleep cycles in your child’s daily life. This will help boost their immune system, Dr. Skariah says.

“Children thrive on routines, so the more you can stick to their schedule for meals and naps on the trip, the better it is for everyone,” she says.

  • Practice good hand hygiene.

Make sure your child washes their hands after going to the bathroom and before and after eating. You should wash your hands every time you change a diaper or help a child use the bathroom. This is the best way to prevent the transmission of germs, Dr. Rao says.

  • Think through the environment where you’ll be spending time and plan accordingly.

Beach vacation? Make sure you bring items to protect you from the sun. Long road trip? Be prepared to help your kids through motion sickness. Air travel? Bring all your most used wellness items (such as thermometers and fever reducers for kids) in your carry-on and not in your checked luggage.

Every family has different needs, but the following packing list is a good place to start:

  • Sanitizing wipes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Change of clothes for each child while in the car or on the plane
  • Small trash bags, if your children are prone to motion sickness
  • Over-the-counter medicine for pain relief, gas, and allergies and allergic reactions
  • Syringe to give oral medications to young children
  • Snot-sucker tool for congestion relief (if you use one already)
  • Bandages/first-aid kit
  • Hydrocortisone cream, if your children are prone to itchy skin
  • Washcloth, if your children are prone to motion sickness
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunshade, if going to the beach
  • Bug spray
  • Aloe lotion
  • Thermometer
  • At-home COVID-19 tests
  • Insurance card
  • Pediatrician contact information
  • Snacks

And a final tip: Bring a new toy that your child can open and enjoy during the trip to keep their attention, Dr. Skariah says. Make sure to pack a couple of toys that are familiar as well.

If you have questions about your child’s health, talk to your pediatrician. Need a pediatrician? Find one near you.