Tips to avoid getting sick on your vacation

You've got the time off work. You saved the money for the trip of a lifetime. Now make sure you can enjoy your trip to the fullest by taking some steps to prevent getting sick on your dream vacation.

Traveling comes with plenty of opportunities to pick up germs that leave you feeling crummy. Crowded airports put you in close contact with people potentially carrying viruses. New foods could lead to an upset stomach. And different climates can expose you to allergens you didn't know bothered you.

Here are some ways to return home as healthy as you left:

Avoid germs on public transportation. "You're going to be exposed to lots of people in confined settings in airports and trains, buses and airplanes, and so the risk of being exposed to someone with an infectious disease is higher," says Nipunie S. Rajapakse, M.D., M.P.H, an infectious diseases expert at Mayo Clinic.

To help prevent infection, put your pandemic precautions into practice:

  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Keep hand sanitizer handy for when a sink isn't nearby.
  • Wear a mask.
  • Avoid touching your face. If you must touch your face, wash your hands before and after.
  • Wipe down hard surfaces around your seat on the airplane with an antiseptic wipe.

Don't get bit. Bugs, especially mosquitoes, can spread diseases like malaria, yellow fever, Zika and dengue. People who are pregnant and planning to travel to a Zika virus endemic area should talk to their health care team about precautions and whether they should consider delaying their travel.

"It's really important to know what mosquitoes can transmit in the area that you're going to," says Dr. Rajapakse says.

To help prevent mosquito bites:

  • Wear long sleeves and pants when outdoors.
  • Use insect repellent with one of these active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol, or 2-undecanone.
  • Apply sunscreen first and let it dry before applying insect repellent.
  • Avoid being outside at times when mosquitoes are most active. This is usually early in the morning or in the evening.
  • Use a bed net at night especially in areas where malaria is transmitted.

Admire animals from afar. Animals, like playful monkeys, can be fun to watch, but keep a healthy distance. Animals can carry disease, so avoid petting stray dogs or feeding wild animals.

Check for ticks. Especially after a safari or hike through a thick forest, do a tick search. Ticks can carry and spread Lyme disease as well as other types of infection. Check your gear and take off clothes to wash them. The high heat of a dryer can kill any ticks that make it that far.

Take a shower as soon as you can, then look in a full-length mirror for ticks. Pay close attention to hair, inside the bellybutton and behind the knees, where ticks can hide. Check kids and pets too.

If you do find that a tick has attached itself to you, use tweezers to grab its body as close to your skin as possible. Pull it up and out without twisting. Then wash your hands and the bite area with soap and water or an alcohol wipe.

Choose safer foods. Part of the fun of traveling is trying the local cuisine. But foods that are not properly cooked can lead to food poisoning. Safer choices tend to include packaged foods and food that is cooked and served while still hot.

Riskier choices include:

  • Raw foods. If you can, peel or prepare fruits and vegetables yourself. That way you know they've been properly washed. Eat them promptly.
  • Street foods. Peek into the preparation area. Before ordering, confirm that the cooks are using food thermometers and serving food hot off the stove or grill.
  • Wild game. Animals not commonly eaten in the United States, like rodents and bats, can spread disease.

Have bottled beverages. Harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites can lurk in water and cause diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. Try to drink bottled water and use it for brushing your teeth. Skip ice, fountain drinks and freshly squeezed juice that are likely made using local water.

Check your vaccines. Before you travel, make sure your vaccinations are up to date.

"We do see travel-related cases of things like measles, so it's a great time to make sure that everyone in the family has all of their routine vaccinations up to date before you travel," Dr. Rajapakse says.

Some destinations might require proof of vaccination against diseases like yellow fever. A travel health specialist can go over destination-specific vaccines and recommendations, like malaria prevention medicines, with you. Schedule an appointment 4 to 8 weeks before your trip.

Pack carefully. When traveling, pack your usual medicine and supplies. Then add a few extra days' worth in case your return gets delayed. Don't forget items you might need only occasionally like EpiPens and inhalers.

Consider packing nonprescription medicines, like:

  • Allergy medicines.
  • Diarrhea medicine (Imodium or Pepto-Bismol).
  • Motion sickness medicine.
  • Pain relievers.
  • Sleep aids.

"It can be very challenging in a different country, especially if you don't understand the language, to try and sort those things out once you're sick," Dr. Rajapakse says.

  1. Choose safe foods and drinks while traveling. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed Feb. 22, 2023.
  2. Avoid contaminated water during travel. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed Feb. 13, 2023.
  3. Avoid bug bites. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed Feb. 22, 2023.
  4. Pack smart. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed Feb. 13, 2023.
  5. Travel Medicine Clinics. Mayo Clinic. Accessed Feb. 22, 2023.
  6. Rajapakse N (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic. Feb. 22, 2023.