Why Do We Get Sick When We Travel?

It seems to happen every time we travel. We have the best time exploring, trying new foods, and enjoying fancy cocktails — then we come home and feel disgusting. Our vacation week is followed by a week of sick time, and that benefits no one.

So, why do we always get sick after traveling? Stress! Traveling can be very stressful for a lot of reasons. "You don't like being on an airplane, you need to figure out what you are going to pack for carry-on vs. check-in, you need to sleep in a strange bed in a strange hotel in a strange city, and you might have to change time zones and lose sleep either on the way there or the way back," says Dr. Tania Dempsey, MD, of Armonk Integrative Medicine. These are the main causes for post-travel illness.

  1. Stress is a major trigger for getting sick. "Stress lowers the immune system, making it more difficult to fight off colds and other infections that you can be exposed to while traveling," says Dr. Dempsey. Crowded airports and airplanes with people coughing and sneezing all around you are a surefire way to pick up a bug.
  2. Exposure. We are exposed to many germs all the time, but an airplane definitely compresses them all into one shared space. "Respiratory droplets are the most common way illness is spread, and if you are within six feet, you're more likely to breathe it in," says UCHealth primary care physician Dr. Rita Sharma.
  3. Low humidity. Airplane air is probably well filtered and also refreshed often, but at the cost of low humidity. "This can cause dryness in the nasal/air passages, which reduces your ability to block the harmful airborne particles," says Dr. Sharma.
  4. Mode of transportation. "If you are flying or using some other type of public transportation (trains, buses, etc.), you are more likely to be coming into contact with lots of other people that may be sick and you probably don't have the ability to move away from them, so if they sneeze or cough, you are in the line of fire," says UCHealth infectious disease expert Dr. Michelle Barron. In addition, the seats, handles, and tray tables often are not very clean and you have no idea which germs are sitting there waiting for you to touch them with your hands. "Once on your hands, if you touch your face (itch your nose or eyes), these germs (usually viruses) can enter into your mucosa and this leads to an infection," says Dr. Barron.
  5. Bad choices. On vacation, we're often not living a very healthy lifestyle, such as "not sleeping or eating well (add in alcohol) reducing our immunity also," says Dr. Sharma.
  6. Hand washing is important in preventing illness. "In a pinch, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer might be a decent substitute, but there is nothing like good old soap and water to wash away germs that you might have picked up while touching door handles, railings, or toilet seats while traveling in an airport," says Dr. Dempsey.
  7. Not staying hydrated. Keep your hydration levels up by drinking enough water can help the immune system fight off infections. "Flying in an airplane can be dehydrating, as can drinking coffee, soda, and alcoholic beverages served while flying," say Dr. Dempsey. Skip these drinks and opt for plain water before, during, and after flying.
  8. Forgetting your vitamins. "There is only some moderate evidence that zinc helps (mostly due to preventing viral replication), but if you do have a concoction that works, go with it (placebo effect helps 30 percent of people)," says Dr. Sharma.
  9. Not sanitizing enough. "My advice to someone who is traveling that wants to try and avoid the above scenario is to stock up on alcohol-based sanitizers and wipes," says Dr. Barron. The minute you sit in your seat, pull out your wipes and clean off the arm rests and the tray table. Then either use a new wipe or your hand sanitizer to clean your hands. "Keep the hand sanitizer near so that you can use it again prior to eating. Yes, I am the crazy lady sitting next to you that is a germaphobe, but I don't mind being judged if it keeps me from getting sick!" says Dr. Barron.
  10. Not getting enough sleep. Sleep is important! Try to keep your body on a regular sleep schedule. "If you are traveling across time zones, expose yourself to daylight when you get to your destination and avoid taking naps so that you can get to sleep on time," says Dr. Dempsey.