December 17, 2019

Tips for Staying Healthy While Traveling

Before you go over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house this holiday season, consider what a University of Wisconsin-Madison infectious-disease specialist calls key myths about travel and illness.

"Many people have misconceptions about how viruses and bacterial infections are transmitted from person to person, especially on airplanes," says Jim Conway, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and pediatric infectious-disease physician at the American Family Children's Hospital.

"If you combine common sense with accurate information, you'll have a much better chance of staying healthy during the holidays."

Conway says the myths fall into three general categories.

Myth #1: Stale airplane air is a major source of contagious disease. 

"There are very few things that fly through the air and magically infect other people," says Conway. "Viral infections like flu and colds spread when you have contact with a droplet from someone's sneeze or cough.  It's transmitted because humans can't seem to keep their hands away from their faces," says Conway.

Viruses last several hours on surfaces while bacteria can last for weeks.

Myth #2: Immune-boosting products will protect you from holiday illnesses.

Conway says there is no reliable evidence that shows products marketed as "bolstering the immune system" work. While the products contain heavy doses of vitamins, Conway says it's not ever been demonstrated in any clinical studies that a few chewables or tablets will instantly make the immune system stronger.

Myth #3:  Surgical masks provide more protection against contagious viruses.

Conway says this is a myth with a shred of truth in it.  Surgical masks won't stop colds and other viruses because these viruses are not airborne like the pathogens causing tuberculosis, smallpox and measles.

"Since it would be rare to come in contact with a contagious disease that's airborne, the only reason to wear a mask on a commercial airplane is that you don't trust yourself not to touch your mouth, eyes and nose, not to prevent someone from breathing in contaminated air OR if you are coughing and sneezing yourself, and want to protect other people by minimizing spread of your own secretions," he says. "To protect yourself, though, you're much better off spending 99 cents for a bottle of hand sanitizer and keeping your hands below your neck."

Conway says people may be tired of hearing it, but the prescription for staying healthy during the holidays is frequent hand-washing, the use of hand sanitizer and keeping your hands away from your face.  In addition, make sure everyone in the family has received their influenza vaccine, and that sick people try to avoid close contact with others.

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