Whether you fly, drive or cruise the seas, vacations are expensive and your time away from the stress of the normal routine is precious. Therefore, you can’t afford to let germs ruin the time away for you or your loved ones. Here are some basic tips to help keep your summer vacation a healthy and happy one.
In a 2007 study by Dr. Charles Gerba, a professor of Environmental Microbiology at the University of Arizona, a variety of shared surfaces on airplanes from eight flights were swabbed. He reported the following results:
- Four out of six tray tables were positive for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and one was positive for norovirus.
- Most of the bathrooms were found to have E-coli, a common gut organism (30 percent of sinks, flush and faucet handles and 20 percent of toilet seats).
This study highlights the importance of bringing alcohol hand rub with you on airplanes to sanitize your hands and your tray table before you eat.
If you will be landing in an exotic location, be sure that your vaccinations are up to date. Be aware of local health conditions present in the area in which you will be traveling (e.g., Cholera in the Dominican Republic; avian bird flu in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa; Measles in Europe; Dengue in Asia, the Caribbean, and Central and South America). Consider visiting a Travel Medicine Clinic before you leave for vacation. Avoid high-risk areas such as live animal markets and poultry farms; also avoid eating undercooked eggs, poultry and food from street vendors.
If you do develop Traveler’s Diarrhea, (cramps, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fever, and diarrhea) which usually lasts three to seven days and affects 20-50 percent of short-term travelers, here are several tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Only take antibiotics if absolutely necessary.
- Avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids such as bottled carbonated beverages, but not local water, ice, or dairy.
- As long as you don’t have a high fever and bloody stools, you can take over-the-counter Imodium.
- Carefully select food by avoiding uncooked shellfish; undercooked seafood or meat as well as raw vegetables that might have been washed in local water.
- Fruits are fine to eat, as long as they are peeled and washed with boiled water.
- Consider carrying some basic medical supplies in your suitcase.
Visit the CDC’s Traveler’s Health site at for more detailed information.
AAA estimates that 75 percent of summer vacationers will travel by car. Pack non-perishable snacks, alcohol hand rub and a first aid kit. Do not store medications in the trunk or glove box because high heat and humidity can alter their potency.
Before you go, research and review photos of toxic plants such as poison oak and ivy so you can avoid them. If you experience contact with poisonous plants, wash the area immediately with soap and water. Never drink water from rivers or streams because it can often be contaminated with the cysts of a parasite called Giardia, which causes an infection in the small intestine. Giardiasis, also known as “Beaver Fever,” is one of the chief causes of diarrhea illness in the United States. It can be spread by water, soil or food that has come in contact with feces from infected humans or animals.
Insect bites and stings can put a damper on your fun and present a potential health threat. Mosquitoes can transmit encephalitis and West Nile Virus. Ticks can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, as well as Lyme disease.
Take the following steps to protect from these unwelcome “guests:”
- Place mosquito netting over infant carriers.
- Use insect repellant with DEET on all campers older than two months of age, but read and follow the directions carefully (e.g., don’t apply to childrens’ hands, don’t use on cuts or irritated skin, apply to hands first, then face, don’t apply under clothing, don’t spray around food.)
- Wear light colored clothing that covers skin.
- Check screens for holes and fix them.
- Combine sunscreen with repellent, if necessary.
- Eliminate mosquito breeding spots around vacation property (e.g., standing water in pool covers, old tires, saucers under pots, garbage cans and recycle bins).
- Change water frequently in wading pools, bird baths and pet bowls.
It is easy to forget about the importance of hand hygiene at a picnic, but germs are no respecters of vacation or leisure time so be sure to use pre-moistened antiseptic or alcohol hand rub before and after handling food. Foods containing mayonnaise have historically gotten a bad rap for causing gastrointestinal illness, which is undeserved because acid in mayo actually prevents or slows the growth of bacteria. Mixed foods, such as chicken or tuna salad, are often handled a lot during preparation, which may contribute to contamination. Here are some additional tips to keep your picnic germ-free:
- Foods should not be left out for more than one hour in hot weather.
- Be sure to keep uncooked meat away from other prepared food.
- Keep hot food hot and cold food cold.
- It is important to have a cooler with ice or cold packs.
- Be sure the ice is kept in a tight container so the food does not get wet and possibly contaminated.
Cruising has become a popular choice for summer vacations. Unfortunately, outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness are common on cruise ships. This may be because large groups of people share common surfaces over an extended period of time. Norovirus, the usual suspect, is difficult to eliminate from environmental surfaces. Flu and cold viruses can survive for up to 72 hours on surfaces such as plastic, and norovirus can last for two to four weeks. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps that begin 24 to 48 hours after the virus is ingested. This virus is very contagious and has prompted cruise line officials from Carnival to recommend that their passengers knock elbows rather than shake hands when greeting one another. Careful and frequent hand hygiene will prevent this infection. If traveling with infants, pay very close attention to cleaning pacifiers, teething rings and shared toys.
If you’re not careful, you may pick up and bring home unwanted and bothersome “hitch-hikers,” such as bed bugs. Hotels, college dorms, hospitals, movie theaters and other places throughout the country have reported bed bug infestations. Once these pests gain a foothold, they are difficult and expensive to eliminate. Therefore, prevention is the key. Never place your suitcase on the floor of your hotel room; instead, use a luggage rack if available. Check mattress seams, box springs and bed sheets upon entering your hotel room. Look behind headboards, a favorite hiding place for bedbugs. These villains are about the size of a poppy seed and are visible to the naked eye. Once home, wash or dry clean your clothes and be sure to inspect your suitcase before storing it. You may want to consider purchasing luggage covers.\
General reminders for any vacation
- Sunburn always spoils a vacation. It can also lead to a skin infection and present a future health risk. Keep in mind that antibiotics such as Tetracycline and sulfa drugs increase sensitivity to the sun and your chance of receiving more severe sunburn. Always wear sunscreen, but take additional precaution if you’re on these antibiotics.
- If you have had recent surgery, you should usually avoid going swimming in the ocean for at least six to eight weeks. It is always best to check with your surgeon to know when it is okay to swim in a pool, fresh water or in the ocean.
- Hot tubs can be a fun and relaxing thing to enjoy while on vacation. However, they have been associated with folliculitis, an infection of the hair follicles caused by pseudomonas. Legionnaire’s disease and other infections can also occur if hot tubs are not properly cleaned and sanitized. An itchy, bumpy red rash or blisters occurring two to three days after using a hot tub is the usual sign of folliculitis. If the water in the hot tub is cloudy or smells foul or sour, you should not go in. Also don’t go in a hot tub if you have open wounds or cuts. Promptly shower after you get out.
Vacations taken with friends and family can create some of life’s fondest memories. That is why it’s important to stay healthy while away from home and after coming back to make the most out of the relaxation, fun, and adventure. If you follow these simple guidelines, this year’s summer vacation may be the healthiest ever.
- The CDC’s Travelers’ Health
- The CDC’s Injury and Illness Abroad
- Survival Guide to Safe and Healthy Travel