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.
# FOOD POISONING
Food poisoning is the result of consuming contaminated water or food that often leads to diarrhea and fever — in worst cases, hospitalisations. Having a good immune system can prevent food poisoning from less potent bacteria but highly potent ones can still wreak havoc.
Avoiding contaminated water and food is the best prevention.
6. Eating Raw Food
I like raw oysters and ate them many times in my home country with no issues. But when travelling, I was down with food poisoning 3 times after eating raw oysters — twice in Thailand and once in China. The hit rate was 100%. After that three painful incidents that ruin my holidays, I stayed away from raw food whenever I was overseas.
Why it happens only when travelling? There are many possibilities, like where did those oysters (or other raw food) come from? How are they stored and processed? How long have they been sitting in the open air before being served? Are they washed with clean water? etc.
Unless the country is known for its high level of cleanliness, food safety standard and has clean water, it will be better not to consume any raw food, which can be easily contaminated. Intrinsic contamination (bacteria present in the food itself) is the hardest to guard against, even in safe country. Heating the food is usually the best way to prevent this. Other raw food includes red meat, sashimi, salads, cut fruits, etc.
Tip 1: Consume only cooked food as heating will kill off harmful bacteria.
Tip 2: In countries which are safe to consume raw food, make sure to eat them in controlled environment, not under the open sky (romantic) or by the roadside (alfresco). Also, make sure raw food are freshly prepared just before serving, not those sitting in the open air for more than 15 minutes. Consume raw food as soon as they are served.
Tip 3: For fruits, it is better to buy unpeeled fruits. Try peeling and cutting some fruits yourself and you will understand how bacteria can get on them via the knife, gloves and bare hands. When travelling, get easy-to-peel fruits, such as banana and orange, as they are easy to eat without having to cut them with a knife (an item that is difficult for travellers to travel around with).
7. Eating Food Near Dirty Water
I was on an eco-adventure tour in Vinh Long, Vietnam, in 2010, and visited a floating market on the Mekong River. Our local guide had advised the group against buying any food ourselves. He brought us to buy snacks from vendors that use plastic sheets or banana leaves to wrap the food. That was because foreigners were not accustomed to the river water, which the locals used to wash their utensils.
Travellers who had been to India would also advise fellow travellers not to dine near polluted rivers as most restaurants would use the river water to wash their utensils. And also seafood from the river.
Locals are accustomed to water directly from taps and nearby river but not foreigners. Unless the locals are in services that cater to foreigners, most of them will not hesitate to use readily-available and free water for all usage.
Tip: In countries with non-potable tap water (it says "not for drinking" under the tap), make sure to get drinking water in sealed bottles, even when eating in restaurants. Make sure all food are cooked too. If possible, avoid eating near polluted rivers.
8. Ice in Drinks
When travelling in hot climatic places, most travellers will not hesitate to add ice to their drinks. Ice is just cold, solid water. What can go wrong?
Everything! When travellers are struck down by food poisoning, they will always blame the food they last ate, except a particular cold drink with ice — the only item that cannot be heated up before serving.
What kind of water is used to make the ice and where does it come from? Is the water boiled or evaporated before thawing into ice? How are the ice packed and transported? Travellers will not know the answers for what they see are just ice cubes floating in the drinks. What if those ice cubes are made from non-potable tap water or water from the "clear" river nearby?
Freezing non-boiled water into ice will not kill any bacteria that are in the water, it simply makes them inactive. Once the ice melt, the bacteria will be active again and can cause stomach upset. So, it is important that only clean and boiled water is used to make ices and are vacuum-packed before being transported.
Tip 1: When travelling and unsure if the local water is safe for drinking, asked for chilled bottled or canned drinks without ices.
Tip 2: The safest is always hot beverages or lukewarm water. So long as the water has been boiled, it is safe to drink even after it cooled. But don't add a lemon wedge with skin (see no. 6 on cut fruits).
After using the tips above, I no longer get food poisoning and catching lesser colds when on trips. And most of the tips have became my daily habits even when I am in my home country: sleep at regular time, take only hot beverages, no ice, carry a bottle of water around, keep air-con at 23-25°C and eat raw oysters only in Singapore.
Without getting the good measures to become your own habits, it will not be easy to apply them when on trips.