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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Health Secrets of a Road Warrior, Part 3: Avoiding Colds
by Shira

So you're planning some sort of dance-related travel - perhaps you're attending a weeklong seminar, taking a dream vacation to Turkey, attending the annual Ahlan wa Sahlan festival in Egypt, or vending at one of the major festivals. Don't let your exciting plans be ruined by getting sick!

When most people think about getting sick on a big trip, they think of "the mummy's revenge", or traveler's diarrhea. 

There is another very real, very common health risk that many of us don't anticipate:  the common cold. 

It would be extremely annoying to be confined to your hotel room with a stuffy nose, head that feels like someone stuffed it full of cotton, or racking cough while everyone else is sightseeing, attending dance classes taught by leading instructors, or selling large amounts of merchandise. Even if you stay healthy during the trip, you still risk coming down with a cold after you return home. It is common to hear stories of people getting sick after Rakkasah and other large festivals, even if they live local to the event. In this article, I'd like to explain why travelers face a high risk of catching a cold, offer suggestions for protecting yourself against this happening to you, and help you anticipate what you need to pack "just in case".

Shira and Gilded Serpent are not prescribing! Women have been burned for less. Please consult your doctor before taking any medications!

Admittedly, there are never any guarantees - it's possible you might do everything I recommend and still get sick. But I find that my methods are usually successful for me. Even if I do come down with a cold when traveling, it's usually milder than most and passes more quickly.

Before you try any of the ideas I've suggested in this article, please discuss them with your own doctor!  If you are pregnant or breast-feeding a baby, you need to consider how your actions might affect your baby's health. If you take prescription drugs for any reason, you'll want to make sure your cold remedies don't conflict with the behavior of those drugs. If you have allergies or immune system issues, you'll want to be careful to avoid any actions that could cause you further difficulty.  I am not a health care professional, and I don't claim to know how my techniques for travel comfort might apply to your own health issues.

The Most Important Preventive Measure
The most powerful thing we can do to stay healthy is to ensure we get plenty of sleep before, after, and during the trip. Often, people preparing for trips stay up late several nights in a row to pack, wrap up pending projects for their jobs, or put their home life in order before leaving town. By the time they board the airplane, they are already exhausted from late nights and stress, and their immune systems are vulnerable.

If you don't have much experience with travel, make a preparation checklist several weeks ahead of time: get your passport, stop newspaper/mail delivery, itemize things to pack, etc.

I always begin performing these tasks several weeks before my Big Trip.  I make arrangements for my pet-sitter. I get my visa if I need one.  I go to the bank for my cash or travelers checks.  Completing these tasks early reduces the amount of stress I am likely to feel when the final week leading up to my trip arrives. For my 2004 trip to Egypt, I packed my suitcase 2 months in advance!

If the event lasts for a week or more, it's important to ensure you get plenty of sleep every night after arriving.  Trouble sleeping due to unfamiliar beds, noisy traffic outside the hotel, or partying hearty before bedtime can weaken your immune system.

When I enter my final days before travel with a sense of calm and control, I sleep more comfortably and have more energy to face my upcoming adventure. Sufficient sleep and low stress levels are the best tools we can give our bodies to battle the cold viruses that we will be exposed to en route.

Bolstering the Immune System
If your doctor approves it, you may want to fortify your body before the trip with dietary supplements that help strengthen your immune system.

The week before the trip, I like to take a daily multivitamin that delivers 100% recommended daily dose of vitamin C, vitamin E, copper, and other helpful nutrients. I continue taking this daily throughout the trip.

The day of the trip, I usually take supplements containing echinacea and zinc every few hours. The one I use is called Airborne.  It contains Vitamin C, echinacea, zinc, and other nutrients. I plop a tablet into a plastic cup of water every three hours beginning with the day I actually fly, and continuing through the day after.  (See for more information about Airborne.) However, it's not advisable to take such large doses of zinc any more than a couple of days in a row because zinc overdose creates its own health problems. Be prudent, and talk to your doctor if you have any questions or doubts.

During the trip, be conscientious about eating a diet that is friendly to the immune system. Citrus fruit and other foods rich in vitamin C are helpful.

Keeping Nasal Passages Moist
Airplane air can dry the nasal passages, which in turn reduces their ability to block germs from entering the body. I take a bottle of sterile salt water solution with me on the airplane and place a few drops of it into my nose about once per hour to keep my mucous membranes moist. I use a brand name called Ocean, but you could mix your own at home.

I also like to take along a washcloth, which I periodically moisten with warm water and lay over my entire face.  Breathing through it is soothing to my mouth and nose, and my skin appreciates the moisture.

Beware the Evil Airplane Pillow!
Did you know that airlines don't launder their pillows very often?  Some claim to launder them weekly, others have admitted that they launder them at most once per month.

Think of the many passengers who may have used that pillow before you in the past week.  Imagine these people resting the side of their face on this pillow as they cough and sneeze their way to their destination.  Perhaps they even wiped their sniffly nose on the pillow itself. Imagine those germs lying in wait to pounce upon you

This is why I don't allow airplane pillows to come close to my face.  I don't mind using them on the armrest to make my arm more comfortable or behind my back, but I take my own pillow to support my head and neck.

Guarding Against Germs
I take along either anti-bacterial hand wipes or a small bottle of anti-bacterial liquid such as Purelle, and use it frequently. On the airplane, I use it before I eat or drink anything, and after I use the washroom.  Admittedly, these products are not effective against cold viruses, but they do protect me from bacteria. If I can shield my immune system from the need to battle bacteria, then it will be able to concentrate more strength on the battle against the cold viruses that it is exposed to in transit.

Some people like to use a tissue over the doorknob when leaving a bathroom in an airport, train station, or on board. I must admit I haven't done this, but I agree that it helps protect against exposure to bacteria and viruses that might make us sick.

While en route, and also after I reach my destination, I try to wash my hands before every meal.

Hotels, airports, cabs, buses, trains, and restaurants all bring us into contact with masses of people, many of whom may be at the contagious phase of an illness.

To the best of my ability, I try to stay away from any fellow travelers who appear to be coughing and sneezing. Some studies have shown that a passenger sitting five rows away from you on an airplane can spew enough germs into the air to put you at risk of catching the cold. I look for ways to escape, even if it's simply to go stand in the galley or near the bathroom for a while.

Some people even take health masks on airplanes to put over their noses and mouths while traveling. It may look stupid, but it's better than being sick on your dream vacation!

Even at home, salad bars and buffets pose a risk of catching a cold. Other people may sneeze and cough on the food as they fill their plates, and leave germs from their hands on the serving utensils.

While traveling, it may be advisable to proceed with caution when eating at salad bars and buffets. It's safer to eat food that has been freshly placed on the counter, rather than that from a dish that is nearly empty.

"Just in Case"
When packing, include your favorite supplies for battling illness. Even if you follow every word of advice I have written above, you may still catch a cold!

The Most Effective Treatments
We've heard it many times - if we do catch a cold, we should get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids. There's a reason why doctors tell us to do these things. They help support the immune system as it battles the viruses in the system. Refer back to my advice in my article about jet lag on promoting sleep and dealing with dehydration - those techniques help with recovering from colds as well as with preventing them.

Don't Expect to Find It There
It's never fun to explore an unfamiliar city in search of a drugstore when you're feeling miserable with an illness, and if you're traveling to another country there's not even any guarantee you'll be able to find your favorite products there. For example, tissues for blowing your nose in Germany tend to be sturdier and stiffer than those sold in the United States.  When you're blowing your nose every five minutes, you want to use a product that feels comfortable and familiar to you. Similarly, Americans are accustomed to seeing many shelves of assorted cough syrups and lozenges in drugstores, whereas in a country like Egypt there might be only two or three choices.

So, pack whatever products you normally use to feel more comfortable when you catch a cold. Whether these are herbal remedies, drugstore products, or other items, you'll be grateful to have them if a cold indeed catches you in its vicious grip.

About Antibiotics

Antibiotics are not useful against a typical cold.  This is because a cold is caused by a virus, and antibiotics work only against bacteria, not viruses. 

There's really no need to take along antibiotic for fighting a cold unless your colds frequently develop into strep throat, bronchitis, sinus infection, or other bacterial follow-on illnesses.  If you have a history of bacterial infections following your colds, you should ask your doctor before you leave home for advice on how best to manage your risks, recognize an infection if it progresses to that, and treat the infection. S/he may decide to give you a prescription for antibiotic just in case you might need it.  Because I don't have a history of bacterial infections after my colds, I don't bother with antibiotic for this purpose myself.

If your doctor does give you a prescription, ask your pharmacist whether there are any issues you should be aware of when taking it.  A drug may have unpleasant side effects, or interact with a different medication you may also be taking.  For example, some antibiotics can make your skin sunburn more easily and most cause diarrhea.  Imodium, which many people use as a remedy for traveler's diarrhea, has a warning on its package saying you should consult your doctor before taking it in conjunction with an antibiotic. Most pharmacies will offer a consultation when customers pick up their drugs - it's valuable to take advantage of this opportunity, and ask questions.  In addition to consulting with the pharmacist, it's advisable to also read the package information regarding side effects and drug interactions for yourself.

Don't actually use the antibiotics prescribed by your doctor unless you indeed see signs that your cold has developed into a bacterial infection, because overusing antibiotic can cause other health problems. With antibiotics, it is important to follow the instructions exactly.

Typically, antibiotic doses need to be taken a certain number of hours apart, and they need to be continued until completely used up even if the symptoms disappear. These instructions exist for a reason and should always be followed.

Returning Home
When it is time to return home, take the same precautions against germs as you did when you first began your trip. It would be annoying to get sick just when you are trying to get back to your normal routine.

Traveling dancers often exhaust themselves with sightseeing, dance classes, vending, and staying up late to watch shows or attend parties. Try to make some down time for yourself during the final day or two of your trip, to get some rest and fortify your immune system.

Your Packing Checklist for Battling a Cold
To help you plan ahead for your trip and pack, here is a checklist summarizing the items I described in this article. Here are some ideas - use the ones that are compatible with your own approach to health care, and ignore the rest. For example, I never use a decongestant but I include it on the checklist below because I know other people do.

As always, discuss any pills or syrups you may be considering with your health care professional before using them.

Preventive Items

I recommend taking most of these on the airplane in the carry-on luggage and using them during the flight.

  • Everything recommended in my article about jet lag for better sleep
  • Everything recommended in my article about jet lag for avoiding dehydration
  • Dietary supplements (I use Airborne) for bolstering the immune system en route
  • Your own travel pillow
  • Antibacterial wipes
  • Tissues for handling washroom doors
  • Health mask to wear over nose and mouth
  • Immersion heater
  • Herbal tea that contributes to immune system health (green tea, hibiscus, rose hips)
  • Styrofoam cup for brewing tea
  • Snacks rich in vitamin C or other nutrients that help the immune system, such as certain dried fruits

To Soothe
a Runny or Stuffy Nose

  • Tissues for blowing your nose. Lots of tissues!
  • Menthol rub, frankincense essential oil, or eucalyptus bath oil to ease breathing
  • Moisturizer to soothe skin under the nose rubbed raw by blowing the nose frequently
  • Antihistamine
  • Decongestant
  • Sterile salt water solution to spray into nose to moisten dried mucous membranes

To Soothe
Other Symptoms

  • Zinc lozenges, but be careful not to take them for too many days in a row
  • Lozenges designed to deaden the pain of a sore throat
  • Something to ease a headache
  • Cough syrup
  • Asthma inhaler in case the cold worsens asthma symptoms
  • Herbal teas designed to ease coughs
  • Antibiotic if you have a history of your colds being immediately followed by bacterial infections such as strep throat, bronchitis, or sinus infection.

More to Come.

  • Traveler's Diarrhea

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
more from Shira-
6-16-04 Egypt Travel Health Checklist
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6-20-05 Health Secrets of a Road Warrior, Part 2: Beating Jet Lag
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