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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]

Filed under: North America, United States, News, Travel Health

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