What to do if you get sick while traveling, according to health pros


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Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: You’re wedged in the middle seat on an overbooked flight, and all of a sudden the feeling of an impending cold hits. (Thanks person coughing across the aisle! Thanks cold, recycled cabin air!) Now, you may already be armed with disinfectant wipes and the supplements needed to keep your skin in check, but what can you do to ensure a cold or some other potential gastrointestinal problem doesn’t derail your vacay or work trip?

We asked wellness experts (doctors, Ayurvedic practitioners, naturopaths) how to stay in tip-top shape while traveling—and also what to do if the sniffles or sour stomach strikes.

Keep scrolling for advice from health pros on what to do if you get sick on your next trip.

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Sick travel tips: How to get better on vacation
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Create a healthy gut survival pack

Avoiding tummy issues when you travel is all about prepping your gut ahead of time—especially if you’re traveling to a country known for poor drinking water conditions and contaminated food sources, says Maura Henninger, a naturopath based in New York City and Connecticut. Boosting your gut health as much as a few months in advance with probiotics—rotating formulas so the gut is exposed to as many variety and sources of good bacteria as possible—is recommended. 

At the first sign of travelers’ diarrhea or digestive upset, Dr. Henninger’s first line of defense is activated charcoal tablets. “They act to bind up toxins and other bacteria and help your body to eliminate them,” says Dr. Henninger. She reaches for grapefruit seed extract (an antimicrobial) along with lots of water with natural electrolytes, sugar, salt, and magnesium if diarrhea is severe—and magnesium citrate for constipation. Dr. Henninger is also a fan of zinc lozenges and a few droppers of colloidal silver at the first onset of a cold, taken until symptoms resolve.

For the immune system, Dr. Henninger suggests vitamin C and D, super greens like wheatgrass and spirulina, and adaptogens like astragalus.

For the immune system, Dr. Henninger suggests adding vitamin C and D a month in advance, as well as super greens like wheatgrass, E3 Live, and spirulina and adaptogens like astragalus. And of course, lots of water to avoid dehydration and to keep your gut moving.

But above supplements, Dr. Henninger also recommends the time-tested remedy that is sleep, relaxation, and taking it easy. “Rest, of course, is essential if you get a cold. Typically most people, when they’re traveling, don’t want to slow down, but I really advise patients that one day of rest will allow their immune systems to fight more effectively and buys them more days when they can actually enjoy the travel rather than suffering,” she says. 

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Sick travel tips: How to get better on vacation
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Don’t forget about your dosha

Ayurvedic medicine is more preventive rather than reactive and it’s instrumental to know your dosha (vata, pitta, or kapha) in order to suggest specific remedies. (Take this quiz to determine it.) “Once a person can understand his or her dosha, then as prevention, they should maintain their diet and lifestyle at minimum a week to 10 days before they’re traveling,” explains NYC-based Ayurvedic practitioner Vaidhya Rudra.  

But there are some general practices that all dosha types can adhere to before traveling. Rudra suggests the following 7–10 days prior to a trip: Eat only cooked and warm food, focusing on leafy and green vegetables and carrots—lentil soup, carrot soup, or any other vegetable soup are ideal food choices. Avoid red meat and all starchy food, including wheat and rice. Drink lots of lukewarm water throughout the day. Avoid all cold food and drink.

She also suggests drinking a tea of ginger root, turmeric root, and basil leaves with added honey for acute cases of travel illness. And if stomach troubles come on, sip lukewarm ginger, lemon, and honey water. Avoid fermented drinks like kombucha, and opt for light meals of cooked vegetables and soups. Triphala powder can also ease digestive stress for all doshas, she adds.

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Sick travel tips: How to get better on vacation
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Harness the powers of herbs

Arming yourself with key herbs while traveling can reduce the risk of illness, says Vermont-based herbalist Mary Bove, ND, who suggests European black elderberry (Sambucus nigra), which has been shown in clinical studies to lessen the symptoms and duration of both colds and influenza infections. “As prevention, one dose daily may be used 5–10 days prior to traveling. If you have a cold or flu, use [it] to shorten the duration and symptom severity,” Dr. Bove says. Take the herb several times a day for at least 3–4 days. Most people notice some improvement within 1–2 days, she adds.

Dr. Bove also recommends Andrographis paniculata, also known as the “King of the Bitters.” Use it for acute viral or bacterial infections that are respiratory, urinary, or GI-related, she says. It can also be used for prevention of colds over a period of several weeks.  

Gastrointestinal troubles can also be addressed with oil of oregano capsules and ginger extract in warm water. Keeping hydrated is, of course, also key, and Dr. Bove suggests herbal teas of chamomile and ginger. The old work-horse echinacea, taken 4–5 times a day for several days at the very first signs of a cold, is very effective, too, she says.

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Sick travel tips: How to get better on vacation
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Take a holistic approach to your health

Gabrielle Lyon, MD, recommends prepping for travel by addressing the whole body: exercising, practicing stress management, getting adequate sleep, and eating a metabolically balanced diet all play a role in preventing travel-related illnesses. Maintaining a 1:1 ratio of protein to carbs at each meal will maintain blood sugar and energy, while reducing cortisol spikes, she says. “These fluctuations  happen in an effort to maintain blood glucose and [they] generate internal stress for the body. If you combine this with the external stress of travel, it generates stress within the body,” says Dr. Lyon. “Elevated levels of stress over a period of time predisposes individuals to the effects of travel.” 

If illness does strike, Dr. Lyon recommends taking oil of oregano. Once the infection has taken root, she advises doubling down on staying hydrated. Keep up with the oregano and also add garlic and olive leaf every 4–6 hours, she says. Taking high-quality probiotics as well as glutamine, aloe, deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), and zinc-carnosine can also provide rapid relief for many intestinal issues.

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If you’re really sick, seek medical care, stat

Contact your insurance company and check your coverage outside of the United States. Research the best hospitals in the area you’re staying in case of emergency. Directories like the International Society of Travel Medicine or Global Travel Clinic Directory can also provide referrals. “Don’t ignore serious symptoms simply because you’re away from your standard care team,” Dr. Henniger cautions. And those are doctors orders you *definitely* want to follow.

For more, here are the top 35 travel hacks wellness experts swear by, and the essential oils you need in your carry-on.

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