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Detox Learning Center

Your Complete Guide to Healthy Travel and Post-Vacation Recovery

Summer’s here, and for many, that means summer vacations. Around 80% of Americans likely will travel this summer — approximately 93 million will travel once, and 115 million will travel more than once. Summer is the season when traveling is at its peak in many areas of the world. In the days before the pandemic, as many as a billion tourists traveled each year. (1, 2)

Summer vacation is a time to get away, relax, visit new places, and do things that you love — whether that’s hiking the hills or sunning yourself poolside with an umbrella drink. Unfortunately, however, vacation is also a common time for getting sick.

Nothing makes a dream vacation less dreamy than diarrhea at Disneyland or puking in Paris.

You look forward to your travels all year. You plan and pack and save for your trip. But as you make dinner and sightseeing plans, also plan for that unexpected sickness. And as you pack up your suitcase with clothes and sunscreen, you might want to stick in your favorite detox supplements or stomach remedies as well.

This is because travel and illness frequently go hand-in-hand. A study has shown that approximately three-quarters of travelers report at least some form of health issue, with 25% reporting lingering symptoms even after they return home. In addition, 32% of people come down with additional and/or different symptoms immediately following their vacation. (3)

What happens on vacation doesn’t always stay on vacation.

Why Does Travel Make Us Sick?

Travel, terrain, and toxins

For starters, when we travel, we’re not just journeying away from home. We’re also traveling out of our comfort zone, our daily routines, and our familiar environments.

This means that we are suddenly and unexpectedly exposed to new chemicals, parasites, pollutants, and toxins. We’re eating new and unfamiliar foods and staying in unusual places that our body doesn’t recognize. So not only are we likely adding to our toxic load, but we’re also messing with our body’s internal environment, or terrain.

Our body doesn’t always know how to react to the stress of travel and the change in surroundings and circumstances. As a result, our internal rhythms and balance can go a little haywire, our immune system is affected, and this makes us more vulnerable to getting sick.

Leaving your inhibitions at home

Another reason that we tend to get sick while traveling is behavior-based. We all know about that famous “vacation mode” that we slip into — when we eat a little more than we need to, drink a little more than we ought to, or sleep a little less than we want to.

Our urge to have fun at any cost can lead us to make poor decisions that put us at risk of getting sick. This can include eating unhealthy or calorie-rich foods, having one too many cocktails, or simply ignoring the things we need to do to stay healthy. We give into temptation, and splurging replaces rationale because, we tell ourselves, “Who cares? We’re on vacation!”

Sure, this means that we’ll have a great time at first, but getting sick really puts a damper on our enjoyment. Here’s a look at some of the most common travel-based health concerns and how to prepare for them.



What Health Problems Can You Get From Traveling? 

Bacterial infections

Food- and water-borne bacteria such as campylobacter, E. coli, and salmonella are common microbes that contaminate what you eat and drink, usually via contact with fecal matter. These bugs are often behind that “upset stomach” or “food poisoning” from your last vacation. (4)

They can cause diarrhea, fever, nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting, and sometimes other, more severe symptoms. Improperly washed and raw/uncooked foods are major carriers of these bacteria, as are polluted water sources. So watch what you eat. (5, 4)

Gut issues

Traveling often comes along with a slew of gut-related issues, from diarrhea to stomach aches to vomiting.

In fact, diarrhea is so common during travel that they coined a term just to describe it. Known as “traveler’s diarrhea,” this vacationer’s nightmare usually lasts for three to four days, with one especially severe day, and is often accompanied by dehydration and temporary nutritional deficits. (4)

Traveler’s diarrhea is frequently caused by E. coli contamination, but that’s not the only cause. As mentioned, your gut can be reacting to the change in environment, food, and routine. And with the gut-brain axis connecting your gut health to your mental health, your gut is also susceptible to the many stresses that travel brings.

When your mind is stressed about getting to the airport on time or figuring out how to find vacation activities to keep your whole family entertained, your gut may become a bit stressed as well and react accordingly.

Gastrointestinal issues in their many forms can also be due to dehydration, fiber intake, hygiene practices (such as washing hands), and the safety/quality of food and water at your travel location. (4)

It can be difficult to eat properly on vacation. You’re eating out more frequently, often consuming new or unusual foods to which your gut isn’t accustomed. When that vacation mode kicks in, you may also be eating heavier, richer, less-healthy foods — and likely, more of them.

Combine that with the facts that you don’t know how the food was prepared, it may be contaminated with pesticides or chemicals, and it could include unfamiliar ingredients.

If you’re traveling internationally, this becomes even more difficult, as language barriers might prevent you from fully understanding what’s in your dinner. And if you have a particular food sensitivity, it can be tough to explain your concerns to someone in a foreign language, and that puts your gut health at further risk.

But although you want to exercise caution when eating on vacation, it’s also important to remember that eating new foods and sampling the local cuisine is one of the best ways to get to know a place. You should be able to eat the clam chowder in Boston or the gumbo in New Orleans. It’s part of the experience of visiting a place.

The best thing to do is focus on supporting your gut health before and during your travel. As much as you can, make sure that your internal terrain is balanced and healthy. With a healthy terrain to start, you and your gut will be less vulnerable to the changes in food and lifestyle that are sure to occur while on vacation.

Insect bites and insect-induced illnesses

Insects are everywhere, and they can certainly bring you trouble even if you stay right in your own hometown — or even in your own house. But these crawling, flying, biting menaces make this list because insects can be an even bigger concern when traveling. Depending on where your travels take you, you may encounter new and different insects, more of them, or ones that carry particularly dangerous diseases.

Bedbugs

Planning to spend any time in a hotel this trip? Don’t let the bedbugs bite!

Bedbugs are opportunistic and troublesome insects that feed almost exclusively on human blood. Although they can live in a variety of environments, we most frequently cross paths with these vampire-like parasites in our homes or in hotels and motels. And because they are known to crawl into suitcases and other belongings, if you’re not careful, they can hitch a ride with you and end up being an unwanted souvenir of your vacation. (6, 7)

About the size, shape, and color of an apple seed (until they gorge on your blood and take on a blood-red color), bedbugs are visible. So, you can try looking for them under the sheets and around the mattress when you check into your room, but unfortunately, you may not find them.

That’s because bedbugs hide out in the box springs, bedframe, or headboard of the bed and only come out to feed. When you tuck yourself in for the night, they smell the minty fresh carbon dioxide on your breath, which is like a dinner bell to a bedbug, signaling them that it’s time for supper. (7, 8, 9)

Before they make a meal out of your blood, however, they first inject you with a numbing substance. You won’t even notice that you’re being bitten and will sleep on, undisturbed, allowing them ample time for a multi-course meal. (7, 8)

Evidence of their bites will appear a day to several days later, at which point you could develop a poison-ivy-like rash, red patches or red and white raised bumps, and extreme itching.

Bedbugs are tremendously difficult to get rid of. They are persistent, resistant, and can live without feeding for up to a year! Talk about intermittent fasting…

Mosquitoes

Whether you plan to spend your vacation in the backwoods of Maine or the rainforests of Costa Rica, you’re bound to come across mosquitoes. Mosquitoes live all over the world but need to be near water — especially stagnant water — to lay their eggs. That means that they thrive in humid (often hot) environments, including along ponds, riverbanks, and streams, and in moisture-rich fields, meadows, and swamps. (10)

Beyond just their irritating and itchy bites that can turn your vacation into a scratch-fest, mosquitoes carry a variety of diseases. The Aedes mosquito carries chikungunya, dengue fever, yellow fever, and Zika virus. The Anopheles mosquito is a vector for arbovirus, filariasis, and malaria. If a mosquito bites someone who has any one of these diseases, it can pass the disease along to the next person it bites. (11, 12, 5)

Most people think that they need to travel to Africa to catch malaria. Although it’s true that many travelers catch the disease when traveling there, it’s important to note that malaria-carrying mosquitoes also live all over the world, including in the Eastern U.S. (5)

Interestingly, even if you don’t come across mosquitoes during your voyages, they might come to you. Mosquitoes are big travelers.

A study showed that mosquitoes (along with house flies and beetles) were able to survive in the wheel bays of a Boeing 747 during flights of between six and nine hours, during which temperatures dropped to 43.6 degrees below zero! In addition, when airplanes returning from tropical countries were randomly searched, 12 out of 67 airplanes (about 18%) had stowaway mosquitoes. (9)

Ticks

If you’re traveling to the East Coast of the U.S., the Upper Midwest, or along the West Coast and planning to spend any time outdoors, beware of ticks. They carry the Lyme disease-causing bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi — or, less commonly, B. mayonii. The culprit is the blacklegged tick or, on the Pacific Coast, the western blacklegged tick. (1, 2)

Ticks bite people by attaching themselves to the body, often in spots that are less visible, such as under the arms or on the scalp. If you’re vacationing in a tick-prone area, periodically check your body for the critters, since they can be hard to see — especially when it’s the tiny baby ticks that are sucking your blood. (2)

If you do find a tick on your body, try to remove it quickly. It can take as much as 36 to 48 hours or more for the bacteria to infect you after the tick first takes hold of you. So if you find the bug in time and get rid of it, you’ll still have plenty of time to stop Lyme infection. (1, 2)

Jet lag

If you’ve ever taken an international flight, you’ve most likely experienced jet lag. After arriving at your vacation destination, you might feel extremely sleepy, or you could find that you’re unable to fall asleep at night. It occurs because your internal clock gets thrown off when you travel across multiple time zones in a short period. (4)

Also known as circadian desynchronization, jet lag happens when your body’s circadian rhythms no longer line up properly with the daily cycle of light and dark. Research has shown that people who travel to foreign countries with at least a five-hour time difference experience two to three times more gut and respiratory illnesses. (4)

Jet lag can cause: (4)

  • Disturbed sleep
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Lack of alertness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mood problems

Parasitic infections

When you travel, you often come in contact with parasites. Naturally, the number and type of parasites you encounter depends on where you travel and what you do while you’re there. For example, tourists who don’t wash their hands frequently, drink tap water, eat certain foods, or walk barefoot often could be at greater risk for contracting parasites. But again, that depends on where your vacation takes you, because different locations present different risks. (3)

Malaria is just one of the many parasitic diseases that travelers frequently bring home with them. The chances of getting the disease may increase if you take a trip to Africa or Southeast Asia. However, vacationers in many destinations are still at risk.

In fact, they say that almost half the world’s population could be in danger of contracting malaria. Each year, thousands of cases of malaria are reported within the United States. As many as 241 million cases occur worldwide. (5, 6)

Caused by the parasite Plasmodium and spread by mosquitoes, malaria causes severe sickness and sometimes even death. The most common symptoms are chills (to the point of shaking), fever, and flu-like symptoms. Travelers are often more vulnerable to the disease if they come from areas of the world where malaria is not a problem and therefore haven’t developed immunity. (6)

Skin issues

Among the most common issues reported by people who travel are skin disorders. This includes such things as acne, bug bites, dry skin, irritation, itching, rashes, and sunburn. These may occur due to exposure to an irritant, such as chemicals, insects, parasites, or sunlight. Or they could be a result of the body having an allergic reaction to a particular substance. (3)

In severe cases, people complained of having an atopic reaction in their skin during or after travel. This is when the body has an allergic reaction that is so severe that it develops an autoimmune response to certain allergens that it believes are invaders. Atopy usually causes dry, itchy, and scaly skin. (13)

How Can You Prepare for a Healthier Vacation?


Now that you’ve read about some of the ways that travel can make you sick and why, here are some tips to keep your body healthy and your travels worry-free:

Handling jet lag and motion sickness

  • Do planes, trains, and automobiles make you queasy? Experts suggest that avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and big meals, as well as eating only simple foods (water, plain crackers) en route, can help lessen motion sickness. Closing your eyes, lying down, and sucking on lozenges or hard candies may also help. (4)
  • Following an international flight, alternating meals with periods of fasting may help cure your jet lag. Some research suggests that fasting before arrival and eating a breakfast high in protein soon after arrival may lessen your jet lag symptoms. (4)
    • Melatonin is considered a sleep aid in general, and as such, it has been proven to help reduce the effects of jet lag. (4)

    Nutrition and eating out

    • Eating smaller meals when flying could reduce your stomach issues. So don’t overdo it on those free plane meals they bring you on overseas flights. Fun fact: Multiple airlines conducted research and discovered that when eating during flights, passengers experience 30% less salty and sweet taste sensations, whereas the flavors of cardamom, curry, and lemongrass taste even stronger. This is due to cabin pressure and the drying out of the nose (which affects taste) from the dry airplane air. (4)
    • Food handling and preparation is one of the leading causes of E. coli infections. So keep up on your own hygiene around food, including cooking and/or washing all food items well and keeping your own hands clean. 
    • Stay hydrated. Drinking a lot of water will help you stay healthier in general and help your body be more resilient against the toxins of travel. If water purity is a concern at your vacation haven, you can buy or bring a water bottle with a built-in filter, or pick up some distilled water once you get there. In addition, if air travel is part of your vacation itinerary, keep in mind that the dryness of the air on airplanes, as well as the pressure at higher altitudes, can really dry you out. To avoid fluid loss, drink up! (Water, that is. Beware of alcohol consumption at 30,000 feet — altitude intensifies its effects). (4)
    • When dining out, you can’t be sure of what sort of health and safety guidelines a restaurant has in place. So just try to exercise caution and good judgment, and when in doubt, maybe opt for the well-cooked options on the menu. If you’re dying to try that street food, choose wisely and trust your gut.
    • Overall, you may want to put in extra effort to support your gut health so you’re better equipped to fight off invaders, such as parasites and E. coli, and can avoid getting sick from them. Probiotics, whether in supplement form or in the foods you eat, have been proven to help with a range of gastrointestinal issues. This additional support may help ease the extra burden on your digestive system when traveling and trying new foods. (13)

    What to Pack

    As you check off the many things on your pre-travel to-do list, don’t forget your health. And before you load up the car or check your bags at the airport, be sure that you’ve included some things to help you prepare for the many health issues associated with travel. Here are some vacation essentials as you pack your bags and go.

    Traveling toward a healthy vacation

    • Essential oils should always be part of your go-to travel kit. Their range of uses and benefits — whether on the road, in the air, or at your final destination — are endless. Here are just a few to be sure to stick in your luggage:
      • Argan oil, coconut, jojoba, and rosehip do all sorts of good things for the skin, including fighting inflammation and helping with skin repair. Use it after a flight in those bone-dry airline cabins, a run-in with mosquitoes, or a sun-filled day. These oils are considered “carrier oils,” which means that they dilute essential oils to help avoid skin allergies and irritation. (14)
      • Citronella and geranium can make a more natural bug spray and repellant to ward off pesky insects. (11, 12)
      • Eucalyptus can help decrease inflammation and pain, kill bacteria, promote relaxation, and reduce skin irritation and allergies. It’s also a known bug repellent. Overall, it's a perfect match for travel. (15, 16, 11, 12)
      • Frankincense is good for both immune health and skin care. (17)
      • Lavender can help relax nervous travelers. And the best part? Bedbugs, ticks, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes all hate the smell and don’t want to come anywhere near it. (18, 19, 20)
      • Peppermint oil helps fight gastrointestinal issues and reduce stress. If applied to the skin, it can aid in relieving the itch of bug bites. Bonus: Bugs hate it, too. (21, 11)
      • Tea tree oil is an excellent disinfectant for those cuts and scrapes that your vacation adventures might lead to. It also fights off unwanted pests, including bacteria and other microbes, as well as bedbugs. (22, 23)
    • First-aid kit for those just-in-case situations
    • Probiotics to help fight diarrhea and upper respiratory tract infections. (4, 13)
    • Snacks are usually a good idea to pack for safe and healthy alternatives that you can eat while on-the-go or even at your destination, if food is a concern for you.
    • Sun protection is especially important depending where and when you travel. This includes hats, sun-resistant clothing, and a high-SPF sunscreen with natural minerals.
    • Supplements to support detox and drainage, gut health, mitochondria, and your immune system. 

    Post-Vacation Detox

    post-travel health checklist

    When you get home after your travels, you can’t guarantee that a few adventurous microbial tourists didn’t decide to journey home with you. Your normal health routine and preventative measures aren’t always possible while you’re away, and you’ve likely been exposed to parasites. So now’s your chance to cleanse and detox. 

    Focus on supporting your terrain and clearing away any microscopic travelers that may have used you to take a trip of their own. You can do this by:

    • Adding support for gut, immune, and mitochondrial health.
    • Boosting drainage to help safely escort toxins and unwanted substances out of your body, and to push the reset button.
    • Doing a parasite cleanse to get rid of any intruders you may have picked up while traveling. For example, through trying a Lunar Cycle Challenge around full moons.
    • Using binders to help pull out any chemicals, parasites, pathogens, and toxins.

    Bon Voyage

    Travel and illness have long been connected. When humans and their various possessions move from place to place, they inevitably bring with them various animals, genetic material, insects, microbes, plants, viruses, and other things that can play a part in disease transmission. (9)  

    That means that since the beginning of time, illnesses have always spread due to travel. All plagues and pandemics have come about as a result of human migration and movement. (9)

    And yet, travel is not the only factor involved in disease or its spread, and you can avoid getting sick on vacation. If you can keep your body healthy at the foundational level, your immune and mitochondrial function will be stronger, and you’ll be less susceptible to becoming ill or infecting others. It’s all about your terrain.

    So make sure that your pre-vacation planning also includes a plan to support your system and prepare it for whatever toxic substances you’ll be exposed to as you get out there and see the world. May all your voyages be good and healthy.

    Have a great trip!