As millions of doses of this year’s influenza vaccine become available in the coming weeks, and the flu season media blitz starts now, travelers may be wondering how best to prepare for flu season travel.
The U.S. flu season historically peaks in January and February, but it can start as early as October. The 2012 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was a particularly severe one with a higher number of flu-related deaths including 149 confirmed deaths among children.
We all know now that a hallmark of the influenza virus is its ability to constantly change and adapt – flu viruses frequently change from one flu season to the next and can even change during the course of a single flu season.
Since October 1st, 2012, the CDC has identified 2,452 influenza viruses, including:
252 influenza A (H1N1) viruses
1,324 influenza A (H3N2) viruses
876 influenza B viruses
You can read more about the CDC-documented changes in the flu virus, including which viruses are susceptible to antiviral drugs and which appear to be resistant. The short version is that high levels of resistance to adamantanes (one of the FDA-approved antiviral drugs for treatment of influenza) persists in the influenza A (H1N1) and influenza A (H3N2) viruses.
1. Get the flu vaccine
While it’s common for people to say “I’m not going to get the flu shot because it doesn’t match this year’s strain,”, doctors overwhelmingly find that individuals who get the vaccine are protected regardless of whether this season’s flu strain is a match or not.
More relevant facts about the flu shot:
The vaccine is not a guarantee you won’t get the flu.
The vaccine won’t give you the flu, but it can give you a sore arm and a low-grade fever. (Those who say they got the flu from the shot were likely infected prior to getting the shot.)
The vaccine given here in the U.S. will protect you in other parts of the world.
People allergic to eggs should not get the flu shot as it’s created using eggs.
2. Update your travel medical kit
If you’re traveling and get the flu, you should do the same things you would do at home:
Get lots of rest
Drink lots of warm fluids
- Take fever-reducing medicines
Some of the items to add to your travel medical kit include the following:
Zinc throat lozenges (zinc stimulates the immune system)
Vitamin C – ideal for prevention, travelers should consider taking this daily during flu season travel
Emergen-C packets – they provide a high dose of Vitamin C without the sugar you get in juice (sugar suppresses the immune system)
Shake the containers in your travel medical kit to be sure you have plenty of pain relief and fever-fighting medicine. You may need to re-fill those bottles if your last trip involved a few hangovers.
See What’s in your travel medical kit? for the basics and modify as necessary for flu season travel.
3. Carry antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer
The places where people put their hands – doorknobs, faucet handles, handrails – are all primary ways of spreading the flu. A person sneezes into their hand, then touches the doorknob. You come along, open the door and it’s that simple.
When you are traveling, be wary of the spread of germs. Wipe down things like airplane bathroom faucets, the arm rests, tray tables and other things touched by those who were there before you.
4. Implement flu season behaviors
According to the CDC, a healthy adult can be contagious with the flu for up to 7 days before showing any signs of the illness. While you know to avoid those with obvious flu symptoms, it can be harder to protect yourself with so many possibilities for contagion in people who look perfectly healthy.
Implementing some common-sense flu season behaviors can help:
Avoid excessive amounts of sugar as it’s known to suppress the immune system. (A single soda can suppress your immune system by as much as 30% for nearly 3 hours!)
Cover your mouth when you sneeze – with a tissue, if possible – or with your elbow. You won’t touch many doorknobs with your elbow, after all.
Wash your hands often – especially after touching ATM buttons, airline check-in screens, elevator buttons, even money – and with soap and water or hand sanitizer.
Keep your hands away from your face.
Make sure you teach the kids these behaviors too.
5. Bring your own blanket and pillow
Most airlines don’t offer you a blanket and pillow and even if they do, it may be contaminated from the traveler using it before you. Stay on the safe side and bring your own travel pillow and blanket – especially if you’re taking a long flight.
Using your own pillow means avoiding any germs that may be left behind from the previous traveler’s eyes, nose, or mouth. Having a blanket or wrap will keep you warmer – especially helpful if you’ve been exposed and are coming down with the flu.
6. Get plenty of good sleep, sunshine, and exercise
The best way to boost your immune system is getting plenty of good sleep and exercise. Melatonin can help with those long flights where you’re likely to arrive jet-lagged. Jetlag = weakened immune system. When you feel tired while traveling, it’s your body’s way of saying you need a break so honor that message and get a nap.
See our Tips for Avoiding Jet Lag for more information.
Vitamin D is critical for the immune system and for your overall health. Get outside every day and get some exercise. Don’t get a sunburn, of course, but the sunshine will help your body sidestep potential infections.
7. Know how to find medical care on your trip
Do some research before you go and know how to find nearby medical care on your trip. Most travel guide books have information about where and how to find medical facilities. Your travel insurance provider may also send you pre-trip planning tips that will help you know how to find medical care if you need it.
See our tips for finding medical help on the road and in a hurry for more details.
8. Have travel medical coverage
If your health insurance plan back home won’t cover your medical expenses where you are traveling, you’ll need travel medical coverage in case you have to visit a medical facility for severe flu symptoms. If you’re hospitalized – and many with the flu are hospitalized every year – then you could come home with a huge medical bill without travel medical insurance.
You can get travel medical coverage for your trip with a package plan that includes trip cancellation, or you can purchase a travel medical plan without cancellation coverage. Either way, knowing you can get medical treatment without a big financial outlay is worth the minor expense you’ll pay for the travel insurance plan.
Note: trip cancellations for the flu may not be covered unless you receive doctor’s orders not to travel or you are hospitalized for the flu prior to your trip.
The good news
An overwhelming majority of people who get the flu will see their symptoms resolve in a few days. Those who are most at risk of serious complications are people with weakened immune systems such as seniors, pregnant women, children, people who travel abroad, and those with health conditions or disabilities.