More than 6.1 million Floridians will set a new travel record for the holidays this year, projects the American Automobile Association (AAA).
AAA forecasts 115.6 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more between Saturday, December 21 and Wednesday, January 1. This would be the largest travel volume since AAA began tracking in 2000.
Whether it’s at holiday parties or airport terminals, with this high number of travelers comes an increased risk of catching a cold or the flu, a more common occurrence among large crowds. According to research released last year, those plastic trays used at airport checkpoints — and touched by millions of passengers as they drop personal belongings into them to clear X-ray scanners — have been found to harbor a variety of germs, including the ones responsible for the common cold. Nearly 7 million Americans (300,000 more than last year) are projected to take a flight during the holidays this year.
In crowded airplanes, it’s hard to avoid germs, especially if you’re sitting near passengers who are already showing cold symptoms, such as coughing and sneezing. People with the flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away, usually from coughs or sneezes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most healthy adults are able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop, and up to five to seven days after becoming sick.
Moreover, a separate study last year found evidence that coughs and sneezes may not be necessary to fill the air with droplets of the flu virus. People with flu can generate infectious aerosols (tiny droplets that stay suspended in the air for a long time), according to the study funded by the CDC and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This means that the flu’s airborne quality can spread more easily than previously thought.
The study’s finding seems logical, says Sergio Segarra, M.D. , chief medical officer at Baptist Hospital of Miami  and an emergency physician., because of how easily the flu can spread based on previous studies. At the height of a flu season, Dr. Segarra said he would take special precautions when travelling. The U.S. flu season usually peaks anytime between December and March, and can extend as far as May. Public health officials have seen signs that this year’s flu season is peaking earlier than usual, putting holiday travelers at a high risk.
“If I was traveling on an airplane, I would wear a mask — and I’ve had the (flu) vaccine,” said Dr. Segarra. “I would wear it and bring hand sanitizers with me.”
Steps for Healthy Travels
Wash Your Hands
Frequent and deliberate handwashing is the easiest line of defense. Viruses can live on common surfaces, such as doorknobs and those airport trays, for several hours. If you touch one of these surfaces after a sick person has – and then touch your nose, mouth or eyes – you’re likely to get sick.
Get Your Flu Shot
In the U.S., flu season typically peaks in January and can run through April, the CDC says. It’s not too late to get the flu shot before you take your holiday vacation. Getting your yearly vaccination is the best protection against influenza, physicians and health officials say. Individuals who are at high risk of flu-related complications include young children, pregnant women, people with certain chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or lung disease, and people aged 65 years and older.
Seeking Medical Care Away from Home
What happens if you do get sick while traveling? If you have a chronic condition requiring medication, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, make sure you take your meds with you, especially since the stress of travelling can aggravate such conditions. You may also want to keep with you some medical records if you have a serious underlying health condition. People with implanted devices, such as stents, pacemakers and artificial heart valves, may need to carry with them the device manufacturer’s product card.
Care On Demand
Technology is providing doctors with new ways to treat patients with the flu or other ailments — even if the patient is out of town. For example, Baptist Health South Florida’s Care On Demand  provides immediate online access to a Board-certified physician using a smartphone or computer.
If you are treated by a physician away from home or you were admitted into a hospital or urgent care center in another city, it’s best to take your discharge instructions and any newly prescribed medications, if any, back to your regular doctor so he or she knows what care was provided while you were traveling.