How To Avoid The Flu Epidemic While Traveling

You’ve probably heard reports about the flu epidemic that’s spreading across the country crippling hospitals and leaving thousands of people suffering through the debilitating symptoms of the virus. The Center for Disease Control & Prevention says this year’s flu season is likely to be one of the worst in 10 years. It’s not even the peak of the flu season and already 47 states are experiencing widespread outbreaks.

For travelers, the chances of catching the flu are already higher than normal – all that time spent in crowded and confined spaces with people from all over the globe leaves them vulnerable to picking up the illness. So how can you avoid catching the flu during your travels? Here are six precautions you can take to keep yourself healthy.

1. First and foremost, get a flu shot. While not guaranteed to stop you from getting sick (the current flu shot is said to be 62 percent effective), it’s still the best defense we have. Whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally, the good news is that the flu shot administered in the U.S. will protect you from most major strains of the virus around the world.

2. Get vaccinated in advance. We’ve written before about how many airports have set up clinics offering flu shots to travelers, and that’s a trend that’s continuing this year. However, it takes some time for the flu shot to take full effect. So if you really want to ensure that you’re protected from the flu, you need to get vaccinated at least two weeks before your trip.

3. Avoid flying out of airports known for spreading disease. With so many people from all over the world milling about, it’s no surprise that airports are a prime place to pick up the flu. However, certain airports are much more dangerous than others when it comes to spreading illnesses, due to factors like travel patterns, connections to other airports, and the amount of time passengers sit around waiting for flights. The most germ-laden airports are not necessarily the biggest or busiest, although JFK and LAX do top the list. By flying out of alternate airports, you can at least lower your chances of being exposed to the flu virus.4. Use a nasal mist on flights. If you’ve ever had the experience getting the flu after a flight, you’re not alone. A study by the Journal of Environmental Health Research found that the dry cabin air on flights was what led more people to catch colds and flus while flying. Basically, when humidity levels are really low, the mucus in your nose and mouth change, making you more vulnerable to viruses. While there’s not much you can do about the cabin air, you can try to keep your airways moist by using a nasal spray. Drinking hot beverages and staying hydrated in general could also help.

5. Wash your hands often, using soap. Hand washing is a simple and effective way of keeping the flu at bay, so as a traveler, it’s a good idea to carry hand sanitizer or antibacterial wipes so you can clean your hands even when you don’t have access to water. It’s especially convenient when you’re about to eat a meal on a flight and don’t have access to a lavatory because the food service cart is blocking the way.

6. Wear a surgical facemask. There’s doubt as to whether a facemask can really prevent you from catching the flu – some experts say that facemasks are good at stopping sick people from spraying the germs they cough up but may not stop you from breathing in air particles that could make you ill. However, wearing a mask can’t hurt, so if you’re really worried about catching the flu during your travels, you might want to don one when you’re in crowded or confined areas. At the very least, it’ll stop you from touching your nose and mouth, which is how the flu often enters your body.

[Disclaimer: Information in this article should not substitute for advice from a qualified medical professional. Please speak to your doctor before starting any new course of treatment. For more information about the flu see www.flu.gov]

[Photo credit: Flickr user Bob B. Brown]

5 Flu Season Travel Essentials

flu shotWe all know that airplanes double as mobile petri dishes. But with a particularly nasty flu epidemic upon us, the Gadling team thought we’d mother you by reminding you to get your flu shot, already. That, and bring along these proven deterrents to the flu and other airborne nastiness. Look at it this way: it can’t hurt.

1. Airborne or Emergen-C: If nothing else, these will shorten the duration and symptoms of an oncoming bout of cold or flu, if taken regularly at onset of symptoms. You can also talk to your travel doctor or primary care provider about prophylactic immune supplements (be wary of homeopathic or naturopathic preparations, which may not be FDA-approved, or could interact with prescription drugs you may be taking. Always talk to your pharmacist, first.).

2. Travel pillow: Need another reason? Because sharing leftover drool from an airline pillow is gross. While you’re at it, pack a lightweight blanket or shawl; if you are coming down with something, it will ward off the chills. And god knows your airline won’t supply you with one.

3. Ibuprofen: Being crammed into a seat is uncomfortable enough without adding fever aches to the mix.

3. Packet of antibacterial wipes: This time of year, it’s a good idea to wipe down airline bathroom faucets, your tray table, and possibly that runny-nosed, coughing toddler seated next to you.

4. Hand Sanitizer: Travelers should always be in the habit of carrying this, in lieu of soap and water. Use it after touching ATM’s, airline check-in screens, elevator buttons and money.

[Photo credit: Flickr user @alviseni]

Top five immunizations for adventure travelers

immunizationsSpending a lot of money to get poked with a needle may not be at the top of your pre-trip to-do list, but it should be. While some countries require proof of certain immunizations before they theoretically permit entry (details later in this post), there are a couple of vaccinations all travelers should get, barring any prohibitive allergies.

Getting vaccinated greatly reduces or virtually eliminates the odds of contracting certain serious illnesses or travel-related diseases, and helps prevent the spread of contagions. This is especially critical in developing countries, where there is generally little in the way of preventative or active health care, and lack of sanitation provides a fertile breeding ground for disease. As is true at home, infants, children, the elderly, and immuno-compromised are at greatest risk.

I consulted with Dr. John Szumowski, Clinical Fellow of the University of Washington Medical Center’s Division of Allergy and Infectious Disease, for expert advice before compiling the following list. As he pointed out, it’s tricky to generalize which immunizations are most important, since it depends upon where you’re going, and what you’re doing there.

That said, all of the immunizations on this list are a good idea if you travel frequently to developing nations, even if it’s for business or budget travel. They are especially important to have if you eat street food or visit rural areas.

The top five, after the jump.

[Photo credit: Flickr user johnnyalive]immunizations1. Flu
With flu epidemics making annual headlines, there’s no reason not to get a flu shot. This is especially true if you fly frequently or use other forms of public transit. Think of an airplane as a flying petri dish; why risk ruining your trip, or exposing others if you’re coming down with something? If you have an underlying health condition such as asthma, diabetes, or other lung or heart disease, it’s of particular importance to get immunized.

2. Tetanus
I grew up on a ranch, so tetanus shots have always been a part of my life. Many people don’t think about getting a tetanus vaccine, however, and as Dr. Szumowski points out, “It’s under-appreciated, and worth getting prior to travel given challenges of obtaining adequate, timely wound care.” Beats lockjaw, any day.

3. Hepatitis A
“Hepatitis A is common and can occasionally be quite serious,” cautions Dr. Szumowski. “For anyone with underlying liver disease (e.g. chronic hepatitis B or C) this is an especially important vaccination.”

4. Polio
Polio hasn’t been fully eradicated in parts of the developing world, so an inactivated poliovirus booster is important when traveling to areas where it’s still a problem, such as Nigeria and India.
immunizations
5. Typhoid
This vaccine can be taken either orally or by injection. Be aware that you must avoid mefloquine (an anti-malarial) or antibiotics within 24 hours of the vaccine doses.

Additional vaccines
Depending upon your destination, you may also require, by law, a Yellow Fever (tropical South America and sub-Saharan Africa), or Japanese Encephalitis/JE vaccination (parts of Asia and the Western Pacific). Dr. Szumowski recommends JE vaccine if you’re traveling for an extended (over one month) period in rural areas of affected countries.

Rabies vaccine isn’t usually recommended, but if you travel extensively in developing nations or have/expect frequent contact with animals, it’s a good idea. I’ve had a couple of canine-related experiences that have sold me on the idea. Dr. Szumowski notes that “excellent wound care and post-bite medical evaluation are still needed,” even if you’ve had a rabies pre-exposure vaccination.

Tips
It’s critical to allow ample time before your trip to allow the protective effects of the vaccines to establish themselves. Go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccinations page for more information on what’s required and epidemic updates, if applicable. Often, your GP, internist, or local drugstore can provide some of these vaccinations; others require a specialist. For locations of a travel medicine clinic near you, click here.

Carry your immunization card with you as proof of vaccination, and email yourself a scanned copy, as well. The same goes for copies of your medical insurance cards.

Practice good hygiene and get enough rest, inasmuch as possible, while traveling, to maintain a healthy immune system. Airborne and Emergen-C are great immunoboosters to carry with you.

Consider travel insurance if you’ll be in a remote or sketchy area, or engaging in high-risk outdoor pursuits.

[Photo credits: swine flu, Flickr user ALTO CONTRASTE Edgar AVG. (away); polio, Flickr user Cambodia Trust;

Airlines not taking any swine flu risks – bumping sick passengers

It was only a matter of time, but H1N1 fear has finally spread to the airlines.

Yesterday, United Airlines passenger Mitra Mostoufi was kicked off her plane when the flight crew suspected she may have swine flu.

The 50 year old from Hawaii was questioned in front of her fellow passengers, and pulled from the plane.

United Airlines said that they do allow their staff to determine whether someone is too ill to fly, and this is obviously done to protect the other passengers and crew on the plane. Especially on a plane, the air circulation system can spread germs to everyone on board in a matter of minutes.

According to Mostoufi, she had thrown up in the airplane bathroom due to a reaction to a restless leg syndrome medication. When she asked for an air sickness bag, a United Airlines staffer ordered her to gather her belongings and leave the plane.

Even though the airline bumped her, they refused to rebook her on a different flight that day, so she had to spend the night with relatives.

I’m torn on this issue – obviously, airline staff are not trained physicians, so they have no way of making a 100% accurate judgment on our health. However, if they notice someone with flu-like symptoms, I’d be quite happy if they asked that passenger some more questions. Throwing someone off a flight just because they are puking does not seem very fair though.

What do you think? Should airlines abandon passengers with (swine) flu like symptoms?

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50% of air travelers will fly with the flu to avoid a fee

I’m a one of the those people who always seems to get sick after a long plane ride. A few days post-trip, I suddenly get a runny nose, sore throat and all the other telltale signs of a cold, most likely contracted from a sick passenger. Usually it’s minor, and I’m out of commission for only a few days.

I guess I’ve just been lucky that it hasn’t been the flu, because, according to a recent TripAdvisor survey, over 50% of travelers would choose flying with the flu over paying a fee to change their flight. As if we needed more reason to get a flu shot before we travel this season, now we know that someone with the flu may end up on our flight, just to avoid the fee.

Out of 2,327 people, 51% said they would fly while sick with the flu rather than pay the $150-$200 fee (plus any change in price) imposed by most airlines in order to change their flights to a later date. This is obviously, alarming news, but I can see why it is the case that people would rather cough up some germs on their fellow passengers than cough up the extra cash to change the tickets. Especially because costs for the new dates will often be higher, meaning you may end up paying more like $300-$400 per ticket for the change.

In the case of inescapable commitments, I can understand why someone would not change the ticket. But for a leisure trip, I would consider it. Of course, I don’t want to get others sick, but from a purely selfish standpoint, I don’t want to spend my time in the air shaking and shivering with the flu, or to spend my entire vacation laid up in bed. But then again…if I felt well enough to get on the plane despite having the flu, I would definitely do it rather than incur the extra charges and have to change all my travel plans.

On his blog, Christopher Elliot offers a solution – airlines need to lower or waive the change fees during flu season. We need to stop financially penalizing those who get sick and allow them to change their flights easily, or they will continue to fly and risk spreading the flu to other passengers.