As millions of doses of this year’s influenza vaccine become available in the coming weeks, and the flu season media blitz starts now, travelers may be wondering how best to prepare for flu season travel.
The U.S. flu season historically peaks in January and February, but it can start as early as October. The 2012 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was a particularly severe one with a higher number of flu-related deaths including 149 confirmed deaths among children.
We all know now that a hallmark of the influenza virus is its ability to constantly change and adapt – flu viruses frequently change from one flu season to the next and can even change during the course of a single flu season.
Since October 1st, 2012, the CDC has identified 2,452 influenza viruses, including:
You can read more about the CDC-documented changes in the flu virus, including which viruses are susceptible to antiviral drugs and which appear to be resistant. The short version is that high levels of resistance to adamantanes (one of the FDA-approved antiviral drugs for treatment of influenza) persists in the influenza A (H1N1) and influenza A (H3N2) viruses.
While it’s common for people to say “I’m not going to get the flu shot because it doesn’t match this year’s strain,”, doctors overwhelmingly find that individuals who get the vaccine are protected regardless of whether this season’s flu strain is a match or not.
More relevant facts about the flu shot:
If you’re traveling and get the flu, you should do the same things you would do at home:
Some of the items to add to your travel medical kit include the following:
Shake the containers in your travel medical kit to be sure you have plenty of pain relief and fever-fighting medicine. You may need to re-fill those bottles if your last trip involved a few hangovers.
See What’s in your travel medical kit? for the basics and modify as necessary for flu season travel.
The places where people put their hands – doorknobs, faucet handles, handrails – are all primary ways of spreading the flu. A person sneezes into their hand, then touches the doorknob. You come along, open the door and it’s that simple.
When you are traveling, be wary of the spread of germs. Wipe down things like airplane bathroom faucets, the arm rests, tray tables and other things touched by those who were there before you.
According to the CDC, a healthy adult can be contagious with the flu for up to 7 days before showing any signs of the illness. While you know to avoid those with obvious flu symptoms, it can be harder to protect yourself with so many possibilities for contagion in people who look perfectly healthy.
Implementing some common-sense flu season behaviors can help:
Make sure you teach the kids these behaviors too.
Most airlines don’t offer you a blanket and pillow and even if they do, it may be contaminated from the traveler using it before you. Stay on the safe side and bring your own travel pillow and blanket – especially if you’re taking a long flight.
Using your own pillow means avoiding any germs that may be left behind from the previous traveler’s eyes, nose, or mouth. Having a blanket or wrap will keep you warmer – especially helpful if you’ve been exposed and are coming down with the flu.
The best way to boost your immune system is getting plenty of good sleep and exercise. Melatonin can help with those long flights where you’re likely to arrive jet-lagged. Jetlag = weakened immune system. When you feel tired while traveling, it’s your body’s way of saying you need a break so honor that message and get a nap.
See our Tips for Avoiding Jet Lag for more information.
Vitamin D is critical for the immune system and for your overall health. Get outside every day and get some exercise. Don’t get a sunburn, of course, but the sunshine will help your body sidestep potential infections.
Do some research before you go and know how to find nearby medical care on your trip. Most travel guide books have information about where and how to find medical facilities. Your travel insurance provider may also send you pre-trip planning tips that will help you know how to find medical care if you need it.
See our tips for finding medical care on the road and in a hurry for more details.
If your health insurance plan back home won’t cover your medical expenses where you are traveling, you’ll need travel medical coverage in case you have to visit a medical facility for severe flu symptoms. If you’re hospitalized – and many with the flu are hospitalized every year – then you could come home with a huge medical bill without travel medical insurance.
You can get travel medical coverage for your trip with a package plan that includes trip cancellation, or you can purchase a travel medical plan without cancellation coverage. Either way, knowing you can get medical treatment without a big financial outlay is worth the minor expense you’ll pay for the travel insurance plan.
Note: trip cancellations for the flu may not be covered unless you receive doctor’s orders not to travel or you are hospitalized for the flu prior to your trip.
An overwhelming majority of people who get the flu will see their symptoms resolve in a few days. Those who are most at risk of serious complications are people with weakened immune systems such as seniors, pregnant women, children, people who travel abroad, and those with health conditions or disabilities.
Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.