Updated: Mar 24, 2018
Ever wonder why people who came back from their holiday trips always fall sick? Or maybe you had similar experience?
The most common illnesses that people usually get when travelling are food poisoning and catching a cold or flu. Both are caused by virus infections, but in most cases, they are self-inflicted due to poor health habits that lowered the body's immune system and allowed harmful bacteria or viruses to attack the body.
I have had my shares of travel sickness when I first started travelling. After several years of travelling around and in different environment, I learnt ways to avoid getting sick on trips. Most of the preventive measures require getting them into habits even when not travelling. Read on and see what I mean.
# CATCHING A COLD / FLU
In western medical terminology, "catching a cold" means being infected by "cold" or the influenza viruses. In most cases, the viruses may already be inside the body, waiting for an opportunity to strike. That moment will come when the body's immune system is weakened.
In traditional Chinese medical definition, apart from external influence by viruses, cold can also be a result of over-heatiness, meaning that the body is too "hot" or "dry" from eating too much oily or fried food, not drinking enough water, subjected to sudden coldness, etc. Sickness will invade the body once the body's resistance is lowered.
The key factor in both medical definitions is the body's immune system, which is like a gate — once opened, viruses will be able to launch their attacks on the body. The result will be the familiar cold symptoms, such as sore throat, runny nose, cough, fever and sometimes aching bones.
1. Insufficient Intake of Water
The top culprit to travellers falling sick on trips is not drinking enough water. A person needs at least 8 glasses of 8-ounce (approx. 226ml) water a day, which is about 2 litres. Minus the amount of water that are consumed in the room in the morning and at night, about 1.5L is needed during the day outside the room.
However, few travellers will want to carry 1.5L of water and walk around. They will just carry a small bottle and hope to refill during the day — but it will not happen all the time when travelling. Furthermore, having to keep looking for washrooms is another reason why travellers reduce their intake of water.
Insufficient intake of water can lead to dehydration, or getting illnesses related to body heatiness, such as sore throat, fever and constipation. These can happen in both hot and cold weathers. Cold weather often reduces the body's response to thirst and causes travellers to drink lesser water. Apart from perspiration under a hot weather, the body actually loses more water in cold weather.
Tip 1: Bring along a 1L water bottle on trips. Fill it with water every morning before starting the day's tour and try to finish the water by lunch, make it a habit to make one water refill after lunch. Most drinking water are sold in 500ml and 1.5L bottles. A refill of 500ml will be enough for the remaining day.
Tip 2: To avoid frequent visits to washrooms, try not to gulp down too much water at one go, especially during lunch. Excessive water in the body that is not absorb by the organs will accumulate and trigger urges for washroom. Regardless of hot or cold weather, try to take one mouthful of water (about half a glass, 80-100ml) every half an hour. This will keep the body hydrated, avoid excessive water and lesser washroom runs. Try this before your next trip.
2. Drastic Temperature Changes
Another culprit is the air-conditioner. Most travellers will set their room's air-con to as low as they can (below 16°C), which is way below the normal room temperature of 25°C. The human body's temperature is 37°C. Prolonged stay in a cold environment will slow down blood circulation and make the brain groggy — which is why most travellers look tired in the morning.
After walking around under the hot sun, travellers will want to run to air-conditioned places. The sudden change in ambient temperature from, say, 32°C outside to 16°C in the air-con room stresses the body and causes it to be susceptible to cold. This is why people sneeze when they walked into a cooler environment from a warm place.
Temperature swings can also be experienced when stepping out from a hot shower into a cold room, sending a shiver down the spine. This is an indication that the body cannot adjust to the cold instantly.
In addition to provide cooling, air-conditioners has dehumidifying function to reduce moisture and keep the room dry. This dehumidifying action also affects the body by drying the skin, causing more water to dissipated from the body. Prolonged exposure will result in cracked lips, drier skins and dry nasal passage.
Tip 1: Keep the room temperature between 23-25°C even if it is very hot outside. Give the air-conditioner a little time to cool the room after just switching it on. The main consideration is to let the body adjusts to temperature changes slowly rather than stressing it and catching a cold.
Tip 2: Reduce or turn off the dehumidifying action of the air-conditioner before sleeping. However, note that cooling the air is already a dehumidifying action. Try not to sleep with the air-con air blowing directly at you, especially at the face — you will look 10 years older the next morning.
3. Poor Sleep Quality
Apart from jet lags and catching late-night or early-morning transports, willfully staying up late all nights when travelling is very common among travellers. "The night is still young" is a common phrase among night-goers who refuse to let their bodies get the necessary rest.
Night-going travellers will stay out as late as possible, go clubbing, drinking or chat late into the nights and try to sleep longer the next day. But, most of them will be awaken earlier than expected and then drift in and out of sleep for the next few hours. The quality of sleep became poor and sleep pattern started getting into disorder as the body is not accustomed to changes in the "routines". This lowered the immune system too.
With weak immune system, the body is susceptible to harmful substances in the surroundings, in food or already in the body which leads to catching a cold or getting stomach upset easily. Insufficient sleep also dulls the brain and makes a person temperamental, resulting in unnecessary conflicts on trips.
Tip: Give the body 7-9 hours of sleep, regardless whether you are at home or travelling. Keeping the immune system in order will protect the body against diseases and harmful bacteria. Sleep at normal hours and enjoy trips to the fullest.
4. Infection by Others
Apart from subjecting the body to heatiness or drastic temperature swings which may develop into a cold subsequently, air-borne infection and direct contact are the most common ways of catching influenza viruses from others. The viruses are invisible and hard to guard against. The best preventive measure will be one's own immune system.
With good immunity, chances of being affected by influenza viruses will be low even if infected by others. Regular exercises and good sleep habits help to strengthen the immune system, and it should be done regularly and prior to travelling.
Tip 1: When travelling, the first thing to do after checking-in at an accommodation is to air the room instead of shutting the windows and turn on the air-conditioner. This will help to circulate the air in the room, in case the previous occupant has caught the flu virus.
Tip 2: Get a flu vaccine before going on a trip. It can usually last for a year.
5. Sweating in Cold Winter
I was hiking up one of the peaks in Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) in China, in winter of 2006, and worked out a lot of sweat that wet my t-shirt under a jacket. On reaching the peak at 1,860 metres, I took out my jacket to let the cold air dried my t-shirt. I did not feel cold but everyone else was looking at me oddly. The following day, I was down with a very bad cold.
When travelling to places with cold climate, it is important to keep the body warm and avoid excessive workout that can cause the body to sweat and loses water. Travellers from tropical regions — like me — tends to perspire a lot after some walking, even in cold winter.
Sweat from the body can wet clothes and become cold under the influence of the cold air, which will in turn lower the body temperature. This is similar to wearing a wet shirt and stepping out into the cold winter. The worst-case outcome is hypothermia when the body temperature drops below 35°C. In less serious cases, one may catch a bad cold.
Tip: Check your walking pace and slow down as much as possible without working out a sweat. A rough gauge will be to check your walking pace with those of the locals, try not to walk faster than most of them. They know better than you.