Travel Health: Staying healthy on the road.

After months of anticipation, there you are, in your happy place – on a tropical beach, in the soaring mountains, in the hush of an art museum. You’ve made it. You take a deep breath. Finally, you relax.

Then you notice a slight unease. A tickle in your throat, a slight rumbling in your stomach, a smidgen of pressure behind your eyes. Oh no, you think. Not again. This happened the last time I got away. And the time before that.

Improving your travel health becomes more important every year. We’re not as resilient and, as we travel more, we’re exposed to different bugs, foods, and conditions. Discovering new strategies, products and resources can help us stay healthy, where ever we are.

Smiling man on vacation.
Where's your happy place?

Travel Health: The first step.

Staying healthy when you travel starts before you leave home. To experience the most joy on your travels, a bit of planning is essential. If you’re in good health, start this process a month before your trip. Start much earlier if you’re not. If you’re under 30, you can probably power through just about anything so enjoy this ability while you can. I did my dead level best to mis-spend my youth but, eventually, it caught up with me. You’ve been warned.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Ben Franklin

Know thyself.

Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for an hour. Now, think about, in general, when you tend to get sick and how you feel. Since childhood, I’ve been subject to sinus and throat problems. My energy plummets, my nose becomes a solid block of snot and my throat feels like a raging inferno. Can you smell the Vicks Vapo-rub my mom liberally applied and feel the comforting warmth of my flannel nightgown?

Exit memory lane and consider your last few trips. If you were never sick, congratulations! Please share your secrets with us in the comments section. For everyone else, jot down where you were, the weather, your mode of travel – all the details you can remember – along with any problematic reactions.  

Do you see any patterns?

A few days after taking any flight longer than an hour I would always catch a cold. While laying on a tropical beach isn’t a bad place to recover and swimming in a warm, salty ocean is always therapeutic, it occurred to me that my vacation time was too precious to waste. That’s what sick days are for.

After a few ski trips to Colorado, I discovered I developed Acute Mountain Sickness, which feels like the flu only 1000 million times worse, every time. Especially if I consumed adult beverages and engaged in physical activities, like skiing.

Patterns of stucco, bricks, bamboo and palm trees.
How many patterns do you see?

A moving target.

One of my dream trips was spending two weeks on a self-chartered sailboat in the Sea of Cortez, sailing from La Paz to Loreto and back. Early winter, with its reliable trade winds, was the perfect time. Good plan, right?

 As our friend Jamie says, “If you want to make god laugh, make a plan.”

The silver lining was that our creeping pace allowed more swimming. Diving off the boat into crystal clear water brought immediate freshness, quickly followed by a slight tingling and, at times, outright stinging. No one else felt it, and I couldn’t see anything obvious in the water to cause it.

When it happened again a few years later in the waters off the Yucatan, I recalled our trip to the Great Barrier Reef where I’d gotten a jelly fish tangled around my neck. Did that encounter make me more sensitive to stingy water things? I hadn’t had this problem before, so probably.
Travel health on the sea of cortez in a sailboat with no wind.
What's wrong with this picture of a sailing vacation?

Travel Health: Step Two

Finding solutions.

Armed with your newly found insights, look for solutions. Some problems, like stingy things in the water are easily solved by searching on Amazon for “jelly fish sunblock“. For the AMS, I spoke with my doctor and tried Diamox on my next journey to the mountains. It didn’t work for me but then I discovered Whistler-Blackcomb Ski area in British Colombia. Top elevation, 7992 feet. Problem solved.

Other problems, like recurring colds, were harder to solve. Using a saline spray and taking Emergen C during flights worked occasionally, but not consistently. As I was getting older, staying healthy year round was more challenging. I ate what was considered a healthy diet and got a moderate amount of exercise. Luckily I was living in Portland at the time, which has an abundance of alternative health options.

Going deeper.

Enter Ayurveda, the science of life. Although it’s been around for over 5,000 years, Ayurveda isn’t well known outside of India. In 2009, I started practicing Buddhism and was looking for information on Tibetan medicine, which is even less well known. Turns out, Tibetan medicine is based on Ayurvedic principals.

Over the past ten years Ayurveda has grown quickly and online information abounds. Ayurveda is effective because it doesn’t take a one-size-fits all approach and it requires you to take personal responsibility for your health. The guidance of an Ayurvedic practitioner can be useful, especially for chronic conditions, but self-study is essential. In the beginning, I learned about my body type and focused on changing the foods I ate.

Who doesn’t love quizzes? To get a quick look at Ayurveda, head to Joyful Belly to discover your dosha or body type. This information directs you to the foods, activities and supplements most beneficial to you considering the season, weather, even the time of day. Banyan Botanicals is another great online source for information and products. For air travel, I now rely on I Travel Well to stay healthy.

Travel Health: Step three.

Putting it all together.

On our upcoming road trip to Texas, we’ll be going from the cool canyons of central California, thru the dry heat of Arizona and New Mexico to the muggy heat of Texas.

In Ayurvedic terms, David and I are both Pitta/Kaphas, which means we’re easily unbalanced by heat. I’ll pack plenty of sweet and cooling foods like coconut, mint, grapes, cantaloupe and cilantro.

My AMS kicks in when I’m over 8,000 feet for any length of time. Flagstaff, the literal high point of our trip, is 7,000 feet. Still, I’ll drink more water to stay hydrated and gradually ramp up my activity rate.

Since we’ll be camping, I’ll check the first aid kit for our water purifier, bug spray, moleskin, allergy pills – and an essential for every trip – a neti pot. If you have any sinus problems, a neti pot is your new best friend.

Travel health in dry, hot conditions.
How hot do you think it is?

It’s no accident that our house sit in Austin has a swimming pool. We’ll be looking for other water related activities and avoiding the heat of the day. If we make it to the Texas coast, I’ll be ready for stingy things with my Safe Sea spray and a long sleeve rash guard. In addition to hats, we’ll have plenty of cowboy coolers – bandanas – to wet and wrap around our necks for instant heat relief.


If you do only one thing.

The most important thing we do, weeks before the trip, is begin boosting our overall health. We’ll eat light for a few days and take herbs to gently cleanse our digestive system. Then we’ll eat building foods, appropriate for the season and our Pitta/Kapha nature. Any potential health problems – an achy tooth, persistent rash – get dealt with now.

What if I get sick anyway?

First of all, I’m sorry. Take a moment and assess how sick you are. A day’s rest and good night’s sleep will cure many things. Give yourself permission to take 24 hours off. Or more, if needed.

If you’re still ailing, seek local help. In many countries pharmacists diagnose and treat many common conditions. In Chile, I went to Farmacias Makelawen, which sells formulas developed by the indigenous Mapuche Indians. And a great opportunity to practice my Chilean.

Local markets often have healers, like the one in Cuenca (8,400 feet), where I went for help for AMS. I also followed the local custom of using coca leaves, which many hotels and guest houses have available. (No, they don’t make you high.)

Travel health in Ecuador using local healers.
Receiving a treatment at the market in Cuenca.

Wrapping it up.

The best time to improve your travel health is now, before you are on the road.

Step 1.  Know thyself. Write down the specifics of when you’ve gotten sick in the past. Look for patterns.

Step 2.  Find solutions. Research online, talk to your doctor and friends. Investigate Ayurveda.

Step 3.  Put it all together. Consider the weather, your mode of transportation, etc. Apply Ayurvedic principals.

You’re all set to stay healthy on the road!


Hey, wait a minute.

What about the magic bullet? Ah, yes. Thanks for the reminder. Jaime, one of my fellow English teachers in Chile, taught me about Oil of Oregano. He’s a hard core traveler who has been on the road for decades. His idea of luxury is sleeping on a bed. In a previous life, he ran a business providing essential oils for their health benefits.

Anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory Oil of Oregano slays many of the air, food and waterborne nasties that can ruin your travels. Because it’s so concentrated, a little goes a long way. I suggest you learn more about it before you travel – and be sure you understand the dosing requirements before using it.

What are your favorite travel health hacks?  Please share them with other SilverTrekkers.

Now get out there and make some memories!


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