It’s been a little quiet on the blog while I was away for several weeks with three other doctors touring the beautiful parks of Emeishan, Jiuzhaigou, and Huanglong in rural Sichuan, China. Not only did I see spectacular scenery, but I closely observed two surgeons, an infectious disease specialist and a pediatrician (me) off-duty.
I examined and recorded what they did and didn’t do when they thought no one was looking. Each doctor followed these 7 highly effective habits to avoid getting sick while traveling:
1.Wash hands frequently.
It sounds obvious, but many travelers forget to wash their hands throughly and often. Especially before eating and after using the restroom.
It’s not always as easy as it sounds. When traveling you may find that restrooms are not properly stocked- soap, water and clean towels can be in short supply when using public facilities. Don’t let that keep you from staying healthy, bring lots of hand sanitizer. Bring the good stuff- 60% alcohol and use liberally, even between your fingers.
It makes sense to keep your fingers clean: Your hands are a common way for germs to make you sick. Did you know that you touch your face at least 3.5 times per hour? Let’s do it with the cleanest hands possible. After all there’s nothing like being sick to ruin a great vacation.
2. Drink bottled beverages.
When in doubt about the water supply, drink only bottled beverages. Use bottled water to take medications and brush teeth too.
Bottled water is widely available and preferred by tourists and locals alike in Sichuan. It’s easy to stock up on before heading out in the morning. Get lots if you are out exercising, especially at high altitude in the mountains.
Fortunately beer comes in a bottle—so you will have no problem relaxing after a wonderful day exploring the sights :-).
Exception: The doctors did stray from drinking only bottled beverages to enjoy buckwheat infused water with meals. The Chinese have a lovely custom of drinking hot water or buckwheat tea with meals. Not only does it aid digestion, but it’s boiled so rather free of pesky germs.
3. Eat cooked food served piping hot.
Yes, it goes without saying that the food in Sichuan is hot– hotter than hot actually. But I’m talking about thermally hot, enough to kill any little nasties that could make you ill.
Boiled noodles, sizzling meats, hot pot, steamed buns. It was all so delicious, and safe. Cold dishes, lukewarm buffets, condiments sitting out on the table- you should pass on them all. If someone in your group is tempted to eat raw veggies or cold food, simply remind them that it will taste better and be safer if served piping hot.
4. Wear sunscreen & insect repellent.
Apply religiously. Sun and bugs don’t take a holiday, so protect yourself.
Each morning apply sunscreen to all exposed skin. Once dry apply effective insect repellent. Many infections are spread by mosquitoes, tics, and other biting insects. Often there is no treatment or protective vaccine available. The best way to avoid these problems is to prevent insect bites.
You skin takes a beating while traveling. Keep it looking good with daily sunscreen. Don’t forget to reapply at the proper intervals according to package instructions. You skin will thank you.
5. Get your flu shot.
Arriving healthy is the best way to stay healthy. The single best vaccine for any traveler is the yearly flu shot.
Many countries have different flu seasons than your home, so don’t forget to get one before you leave.
After all, do you really have time for a two week respiratory illness while traveling? I didn’t think so–get your flu shot.
For the record: all four doctors get their flu shot every year.
6. Stay flexible.
Travel is a lot of fun, new people new sights, new foods, new cultures. It can be a little stressful too. Often plans need to change in the moment.
Keeping an open mind/attitude smooths out the little imperfections of travel and often opens up new experiences. Having a meltdown because things didn’t go as planned doesn’t solve the problem and only adds to everyone’s stress.
When we changed plans while hiking we found ourselves sleeping overnight in a monastery on Emeishan. Waking up to the low murmur of monks chanting punctuated by drums and bells in the early morning is a something I’ll never forget. Nor will I forget the laughter and hospitality of “Betty” our hostess serving us breakfast at a trail side snack shop there.
It’s these serendipitous moments which make enduring impressions. Flexibility helps you enjoy the moment and decreases the feelings of stress when you travel.
7. Wear seat belts.
This is the number one rule for all travelers. Of all the things you do to stay safe and healthy nothing is more effective than safe transportation. The data are very clear on this.
When you are traveling in rural communities it can be a bit difficult. We were lucky, in Jiuzhaigou we met a licensed taxi driver who had safe driving habits and seat belts–even in the back seat. We hired him again and again.
I watched, every single person in our party wore a seat belt every time, even if the driver didn’t. Avoid travel at night on dimly lit and poorly maintained roads since these commonly are implicated in auto crashes.
Practice what you preach?
My conclusion after watching four doctors’ every move while traveling for two weeks: they do practice what they preach. They follow simple, reliable methods to stay healthy while traveling.
The best news is that these seven habits are achievable by any traveler. You don’t need to spend years in medical training to master them. And there is good data to back up their effectiveness.
How about you? How do you stay healthy while traveling? Share your comments below.