man holding boarding pass to travel

Preparing Your Immune System for Travel

Dr. Selena Colarossi, RPh, PharmD, BASc

Written by: Dr. Selena Colarossi, RPh, PharmD, BASc

Updated: November 2nd, 2023

Traveling is often a source of joy and adventure, offering the chance to explore new places, cultures and foods. However, it also comes with its own set of challenges, particularly when it comes to health. While travel can be exhilarating, it can also expose you to new germs, which increases the risk of illness or infections. Also, for those already struggling with gut issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), food sensitivities, acid reflux, or celiac disease, travel can seem especially daunting. 

We’re going to get into all the ways you can get and stay healthy before, during, and after your trip so you can simply relax, and enjoy the adventure!

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The Immune System

Before we dive in on travel-related tips, it’s important to have a general understanding of the immune system, and how to keep it strong and healthy. 

What is the Immune System?

The immune system refers to a collection of cells, chemicals and processes that function to protect the skin, airways, gut and other areas from foreign organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and parasites, viruses, cancer cells, and toxins[1]. In simpler terms, the immune system protects the body from invaders – and keeps it healthy.

The immune system, like all other systems in the body, can become impaired, weaken, or even fail. When this happens, all the bad organisms that the immune system was keeping out can attack the body and cause disease or illness. This is especially true when travelling, since your body might encounter foreign organisms abroad that it is has never been exposed to before. You’ll want a strong immune system when facing all these new pesky invaders!

Strengthening the Immune System

While it might seem strange to think that you can strengthen something you can’t see, much like muscles, the immune system can in fact be strengthened. Probiotics, like Culturelle’s Immune Defense Probiotic or Healthy Metabolism Probiotic, help keep your immune system going strong, promote overall wellness and help support gastrointestinal health. Culturelle’s Immune Defense Probiotic not only provides 10 Billion CFU’s of the clinically proven strain Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG®)++ but is also packed with a daily dose of Vitamin C, Vitamin D, zinc and naturally sourced elderberry.

Other healthy habits that contribute to a healthy immune system include a healthy diet, exercise, sleep, sufficient vitamin and mineral intake, and managing stress. 

Common Travel-Related Illnesses

Whether or not your immune system is ready, there are several travel-related illnesses that one may encounter while on vacation. The most common infections acquired abroad are gastrointestinal in nature, with studies showing that traveler’s diarrhea is number one[2]. Other illnesses you may pick up include hepatitis A, and cold and flu viruses.

Travel can also trigger flare-ups of existing illnesses. Some examples of diseases and conditions that may worsen or get triggered by travel include:

Whether they’re existing or new illnesses, travelling under the weather is never a great experience so let’s talk about some ways you can avoid this.

Before You Go

It’s never too early to start preparing your immune system for an upcoming trip.

Get a Travel Consult

Start with a travel consult with a Healthcare Professional. These are available at travel clinics and some pharmacies. The pharmacist, nurse or doctor can determine you and your family’s specific travel needs based on the country or countries you are travelling to. 

Certain destinations require prescription medications to prevent altitude sickness or to treat travelers’ diarrhea. Others require vaccinations, with some countries even having mandatory vaccine entry requirements. 

In addition to prescriptions and vaccinations, some over-the-counter (OTC) are particularly handy for travel. These include anti-motion sickness tablets, acid reducers, pain relievers and electrolyte powders. Stock-up before you leave in case the country you’re visiting doesn’t have these products readily available.

Get Vaccinated

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) has comprehensive recommendations for travellers. Aside from ensuring you are up to date on routine immunizations, NACI also recommends hepatitis A and B vaccines for high-risk countries, Japanese encephalitis vaccine adults those with high exposure risk, and many others[3]. Make sure you give yourself enough time to get a travel consult and complete your full series before your departure date. As mentioned, some countries won’t even let you in without them!

Prepare Your Itinerary

Most seasoned travelers know that planning meals or daily itineraries in advance can help you make the most of your vacation, and save you time while you’re there. Others prefer the thrill of searching for a Wi-Fi connection in a small European town to look up nearby food options. To each their own! But if you have digestive conditions, we highly recommend pre-planning your meals, at the very least. 

For those with celiac disease, cross-contamination with gluten is a major concern. We recommend apps like “Find Me Gluten Free”, so you can locate celiac-safe options in the area you’re visiting. Some countries also maintain their own lists. Italy, for example, has an Italian Celiac Association that certifies restaurants that are free from cross-contamination. Look for AIC certification signs or use their mobile app when visiting.

Make a Gut-Friendly Packing List

If you suffer from digestive conditions like celiac disease, IBS, IBD, or food sensitivities or allergies, you might need to pack a few more items than the average traveler. To make sure you belly issues don’t ruin your trip, consider these items for your packing list:

Research Local Guides & Tips

One of the best ways to avoid getting sick on vacation is to familiarize yourself with the local risks. Even though you’re now armed with ways to strengthen and maintain a healthy immune system before your next vacation, you can still avoid putting it to the test. 

Do your research! There are plenty of travel guides with local tips for staying safe and healthy. Read up about the quality of drinking water in your country of choice, and how to avoid it if needed. The Government of Canada maintains up to date lists of travel health risks by country, which are useful to identify specific risks for the region. For example, a Zika virus risk may have you packing extra bug spray, or avoiding the country all together if you are pregnant or planning for pregnancy. 

Translate Key Words

For our food sensitive, allergic, or celiac friends, download a translator or keep a list of translated key words like lactose free, gluten free, milk, dairy, lactose, wheat, gluten, etc. These will come in handing when navigating foreign food labels and menus. 

Consider Travel Insurance

While illness prevention is the main goal, consider travel medical insurance options through your employer, airline or credit card to ensure you have a plan if the worst happens. Even a simple doctor’s visit and antibiotic across the border in the United States can run you quite the tab!

While You’re Away

Now that you’ve done the leg work to build your immune system and prepare for your trip, the fun part begins! However, maintaining immunity and avoiding gut triggers while travelling is still very important. 

Wash Your Hands

Be sure to have hand-sanitizer ready, or use restrooms to do a proper hand-washing when available and especially before eating. Travelling can mean buses, subways, trains and planes, which are not known to have the most sanitized surfaces!

Take Your Probiotics

Be consistent with your routine. Continue to take your daily probiotic and vitamins that support immune function. Take any prescription medications as required, and stay on top of your doses. All the time zone, diet, sleep and climate changes that come with travelling can be a shock to the system. Avoid adding more stress by maintaining your immune-heathy habits.

Limit Alcohol Intake

Research suggests that binge-drinking, or drinking a lot of alcoholic beverages in a short amount of time, can weaken the immune system[4]. If you enjoy alcohol, try to limit your intake each day and across days to ensure you’re giving your system a chance to recover and react to foreign invaders as needed.

Protect Yourself from Burns

Believe it or not, your skin is an important part of a properly functioning immune system. Unprotected exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause damage to the skin and immune system, while also increasing the risk for cancer[5]. Protect yourself by limiting exposure, wearing sunscreen with at least 30 SPF, and wearing protective clothing like hats and sunglasses. 

Enjoy the Moment

Enjoy the moment while you’re on vacation. Try to focus more on all the new experiences, cultures, and foods, and less on your bloated belly or stuffy nose. No one is perfect, and some triggers and illnesses are unavoidable!

When You Get Home

Immune defense should continue even after you arrive home from vacation. You may still be fighting off germs you picked up on the trip or the return flight, so it’s best to continue healthy habits while you give your body some time to recover. 

Manage Your Jet lag

We know that lack of sleep leads to stress on the body, weakens the immune system and overall has a negative impact on one’s health[6]. Jet lag, which happens when you travel between time zones, can impair sleep by confusing the body and messing with its normal sleep-wake cycle. To recover from jet lag faster, sleep and wake during the hours of the country you’re in so that your body can adapt to the time zone faster. Adjust your meals to normal times as well. Though it may seem like you’re wide awake and ready for dinner at 3:00 a.m., indulging can actually delay recovery, impair sleep, and impact your immune system.

Treat Illness

If you got sick on vacation and were unable to or unsure about seeking treatment in a foreign country, you may need follow up with your family doctor. Listen to your gut! If it’s acting up more than usual, there’s a chance you picked up a travel-related illness and you’ll want to get some tests to rule out anything serious. 

For a cough or cold virus that you picked up on the return flight, speak to your pharmacist about managing your symptoms and monitoring for “red flags” that require a doctor’s appointment. 

Give Yourself a Pat on the Back!

Take some time to share and enjoy your trip stories and photos, and focus on the wins. Travelling in a post-pandemic world can be stressful enough without layering in digestive conditions. Be proud of what you accomplished, and hang on to those guides and packing lists because we’re sure you’ll be planning your next big adventure before you know it!

References:

[1] Marshall, J. S., Warrington, R., Watson, W., & Kim, H. L. (2018). An introduction to immunology and immunopathology. Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology, 14(Suppl 2), 49. https://aacijournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13223-018-0278-1

[2] Angelo, K. M., Kozarsky, P. E., Ryan, E. T., Chen, L. H., & Sotir, M. J. (2017). What proportion of international travellers acquire a travel-related illness? A review of the literature. Journal of Travel Medicine, 24(5), 10.1093/jtm/tax046. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5825178/

[3] Government of Canada. (2023, February). Immunization of travellers: Canadian Immunization Guide. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/healthy-living/canadian-immunization-guide-part-3-vaccination-specific-populations/page-9-immunization-travellers.html

[4] Sarkar, D., Jung, M. K., & Wang, H. J. (2015). Alcohol and the Immune System. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 37(2), 153–155. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4590612/

[5] Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2023). Sun Safety. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/sun-safety

[6] Besedovsky, L., Lange, T., & Born, J. (2012). Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Archiv: European Journal of Physiology, 463(1), 121–137. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3256323/

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