Protection from Travel Infection

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December 8, 2014


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This post is available in: Spanish

The holiday season is officially here. And like in the old familiar song, you’re likely taking a trip to Grandmother’s house this winter.

But even if your plans take you elsewhere, the likelihood of contracting an illness is higher this time of year. The way you get to Grandma’s house – whether by land, air or sea – could increase your risk of coming down with a cold or the flu, or some of the other viruses we’ve been hearing about in the news.

“The fall and winter months keep us busy at the hospitals,” said John Braden, M.D., an emergency room physician and Baptist Health’s medical director for emergency preparedness. “People tend to eat fewer fresh fruits and vegetables, have lower levels of vitamin D to boost their immune systems and are spending time in crowded places – airports, airplanes, trains, buses and cruise ships – where germs abound. These combined factors lead to the quick spread of viruses.”

To explain how viruses infect people, Dr. Braden emphasizes that viruses, such as the common cold and influenza, can live on surfaces for several hours. He says that if you touch a doorknob or handrail someone with a cold had touched earlier and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you’re likely to come down with a cold.

Hand Sanitizing

That’s the main reason that infection control practitioners like Barbara Russell, R.N., director of Infection Prevention and Control at Baptist Hospital, recommend hand washing as the number one way to prevent the spread of infection.

“Many of the viruses we hear about – influenza, cold, norovirusEnterovirus D68 and ebola – are transmitted through hand-to-mouth, -nose and -eye contact,” she said. “So hand washing or hand sanitizing with an alcohol-based gel should be used to protect yourself from these infections.”

Luckily, Ms. Russell says many of the viruses that can potentially wreak havoc this time of year – including the ebola virus – are easily killed on surfaces and hands with proper cleaning. If you are unable to wash your hands with soap and water, she recommends using a hand sanitizer in the following way:

• Use enough alcohol-based hand sanitizer to cover your fingers, back of hands and wrists.
• Rub vigorously until the gel is absorbed and dry – in about 15 to 20 seconds.
• If it dries much quicker than that, you should be using more of the gel.

Hands Off

Dr. Braden agrees and adds that people should also consciously avoid touching their faces to prevent the viruses that may be on their hands from entering their mucous membranes through their eyes, noses and mouths. He warns, too, that in the case of air travel, people tend to rub their eyes because of the dryness they encounter when flying. “Many forget that the eyes lead to those membranes,” he said.

And while we expect planes, trains and especially cruise ships to be cleaned regularly, the reality is there are limitations.

“When we talk about traveling using mass transit, it’s very difficult for operators of these vessels to thoroughly sanitize them between loads of passengers,” Dr. Braden said. “Therefore, we must do our part to protect ourselves and our family members.”

Ways to Protect Yourself

In addition to regular hand washing, Dr. Braden and Ms. Russell recommend getting the flu vaccine every year.

“Flu season peaks in January in the United States,” Dr. Braden said. “It’s not too late to get your flu shot.” And he stresses that colds and flu occur most often and have a higher mortality rate in the U.S. than some of the viruses the media have been focused on.

“Colds and flu can lead to pneumonia, which can kill people, especially those with suppressed immune systems, the very young and the elderly populations,” he said.

Ms. Russell adds that if you plan to travel to South America, it’s a good idea to get a second flu shot closer to the summer to protect yourself during South America’s winter months.

She also says that if you’re worried about contracting any of the airborne viruses – cold, flu, Enterovirus D-68 – you could wear a surgical mask, like the type available in pharmacies, while traveling. Also, if anyone seated near you on a plane appears to be ill, ask to be moved as far away from the individual as possible, since people in the same row, the row in front and the row behind are at highest risk for exposure.

Both Ms. Russell and Dr. Braden understand the concerns people have about contracting illnesses while traveling. Overall, they say that hand washing, immunizations, avoiding contact with sick people and staying as healthy as possible with proper nutrition and exercise to boost your immune system go a long way to prevent the spread of illness.

Armed with that knowledge, go forth to Grandma’s house, but be sure to pack your hand sanitizer!

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