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Having a healthy holiday: how not to get sick this December

Travelling over the holidays? Here's how to stay healthy.
Travelling over the holidays? Here's how to stay healthy. Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

December means lots of parties, family gatherings, travel and dinners with loved ones.

It also happens to be when you’re most likely to catch a cold or the flu.

“This is high season for influenza, but also other upper respiratory tract infections,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto General Hospital.

This isn’t really a coincidence — all that socializing and time indoors means germs get passed around.

But nothing ruins a vacation like being stuck in bed. Here are some tips to make sure that doesn’t happen.

If you’re travelling

Travel precautions depend a lot on where you’re going, said Dr. Suni Boraston, medical director of the Travel Clinic, Vancouver Coastal Health.

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If you’re going down south or overseas, you will want to check in with a travel health specialist, she said. This person can recommend specific vaccines and precautions for your destination.

“The most common vaccines that we recommend are hepatitis A, typhoid fever, yellow fever for certain destinations,” she said, noting that Brazil is currently at high risk for yellow fever.

You might get non-destination-specific shots too, she said. “This is often our chance to update routine vaccines such as tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis and measles/mumps/rubella and influenza.”

READ MORE: Don’t skip out on travel vaccinations — they could save your life

In many parts of the world, mosquito protection is a big deal, Bogoch said, because of the risk of malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases.

“We know malaria is a potentially deadly infection if it’s not treated promptly and there are pills people can take that are widely available that are very, very effective in preventing malaria,” he said. Travel medicine specialists can prescribe these pills if they’re needed.

Many countries around the world are experiencing huge dengue outbreaks now too, he said, so you definitely need to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.

To protect yourself, Boraston suggests staying in air-conditioned locations, bringing mosquito repellent, wearing light-coloured clothes that protect your arms and legs, using mosquito nets, and not going out in the evening when mosquitos are most active.

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Travel Best Bets: Travel vaccinations
Travel Best Bets: Travel vaccinations

You’ll also want to watch what you eat and drink.

“I think it’s important for people to recognize that water out of the taps might not be safe,” Bogoch said. The same goes for ice made from that water, and fresh fruits and vegetables rinsed or grown in it.

If you do get traveller’s diarrhea, it will generally go away on its own, he said, but you will want to make sure you stay well-hydrated.

Boraston suggests you pack a simple first aid kit, some ibuprofen or acetaminophen, Immodium and Pepto Bismol (or generic versions) for stomach ailments, an antihistamine, Gravol, and oral hydration packets, in addition to any prescription medications you might need.

In transit

It’s not just about the destination, it’s how you get there, Bogoch said.

“Travelling on airplanes and in crowded airports and on buses, I mean, it certainly puts people into close contact with other individuals. And we know some people might be sick with respiratory or gastrointestinal infections at that time.”

READ MORE: What to do if you’re seated next to a sick person on a plane

Some viruses and bacteria can live on surfaces for hours, he said, so good hand hygiene is key.

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“Simple things like alcohol hand sanitizer and washing your hands with soap and water after touching different things in public settings can certainly reduce people’s risk of picking up infections.”

At home

Whether or not you’re travelling, getting your flu shot is key, he said. So far, the number of flu cases in Canada is a little lower than usual for this time of year, but reported cases are increasing every week, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

And influenza isn’t the only thing to look out for, Bogoch said. Some other respiratory infections, like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can also cause very serious cold or flu-like infections and have no vaccine.

When you’re at home, cough and sneeze into your elbow instead of into the air, he said. If you’re feeling sick, maybe stay at home rather than going into the office or out to a party. And make sure to wash your hands.

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“We don’t want to transmit these infections to loved ones at home.”