Getting sick is easily one of the worst things that could happen to you when you’re travelling, more so if you’re doing it for work. Unfortunately, a sudden illness or injury in unfamiliar territory has always been a job hazard for business travellers.

These past few months have made this fact all the more explicit. As the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) continues to spread beyond China and Asia, business travel has slowed down amid intensified efforts to contain the virus.

For business travellers, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-like disease has brought renewed attention to the importance of staying healthy when on the road. That’s a task easier said than done, given how easy it seems to catch a cold when stuck on a plane for hours. We recommend taking these measures to protect yourself from common travel-related infections.

Start at home

Preventing travel-associated infections begins long before the ride to the airport. By taking care of your health before your trip, you can make sure your body’s immune system is conditioned to fight off illness, whatever the hygiene level of the plane, bus, or train may be.

Yes, the final hours before you leave can be particularly stressful. But if you aim to exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and eat a balanced diet, you should be in great shape to travel.

If you have health concerns or any other doubts, talk to your doctor about how to proceed and protect yourself. At the very least, you should know if you have any allergies to vitamins or other medicines you’re considering taking.

Be careful where you drink water

They don't call it Montezuma's revenge for nothing.

Respiratory diseases are getting all the attention now due to the COVID-19 outbreak. But if you're going to get sick on a business trip, chances are it'll be due to a foodborne or waterborne illness like travellers' diarrhoea (TD)—estimated to affect 20%–50% of travellers (roughly 10 million people) a year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

TD is caused by organisms that can cause diarrhoea, nausea, and vomiting when ingested. Although these organisms are associated with countries that have lower hygiene standards, they are commonly reported worldwide.

The lesson here is simple. When in doubt, stick to bottled water.

Avoid food from questionable places

For the same reasons as above, it’s generally a good idea to avoid street food or any food from places with questionable hygiene practices, especially if you have a sensitive stomach.

Getting sick from bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli is a common problem associated with eating food that’s not cooked properly. If you find yourself having to eat food on the street or even in restaurants, go for something you know will be cooked or fried thoroughly. Avoid items like fresh seafood and unpasteurised milk and cheeses.

Take prophylactic medication

If for some reason, your business trip will take you to rural parts of Asia and Africa, you may need to take medication to prevent diseases like malaria.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), malaria is “a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans.” It can result in high fever, flu-like symptoms, and anaemia.

Do note that malaria is relatively rare in the world’s major cities, which is probably where your business trip will take you. Still, if you are travelling to an area with a known malaria problem, talk to your doctor to get the appropriate prophylactic medicines that can be taken before, during, and after your trip.

Wash your hands

This sounds like common sense, but you’ll be surprised by how often people forget to wash their hands.

A study published in the American Journal of Infection Control found that, on average, people touch their faces 23 times every hour. And if that’s just for the face, what about the objects we all touch or hold every day? Think of door handles, elevator buttons, currencies, and office supplies and equipment.

This rate of face-touching and our access to public high-touch points, paired with little hand-washing, means that people are likely to get germs and viruses and get sick as a result.

Proper hand hygiene goes a long way towards stopping the spread of infection; and can be enough to reduce your risk of getting TD, food poisoning, flu, norovirus, and other infectious diseases.

Whenever possible, always wash your hands with soap and water for at least 30 seconds before and after eating, and after using the toilet. If you’re nowhere near a washroom, you can make do with hand sanitiser.

Get travel insurance

Travel insurance can save you from a world of headaches should you fall ill on a business trip or make a cancellation due to a health emergency. By taking out travel insurance, you have one less thing to worry about and more time to focus on the job at hand.

For one-off or infrequent business trips, a single-trip policy may offer the best value for money. However, if you regularly travel for work, you may benefit from an annual multi-trip policy.

It’s also a good idea to check your corporate travel policy and see if your employer offers cover for travelling employees.

Pack a health kit

Packing a health kit may seem ‘extra,’ especially if your company has travel health insurance. However, it’s always a good idea to have your own stash of over-the-counter and prescription medicines, as well as basic medical supplies.

Consider including the following items in your kit:

  • Prescription medicines, including a basic antibiotic for TD
  • Malaria medicine, if necessary
  • Inhaler, if necessary
  • Anti-allergy medicine, if necessary
  • Antidiarrhoeal medicine (e.g., Pepto-Bismol)
  • Cough drops
  • Lozenges
  • Pain and fever medicine
  • Hand sanitiser
  • Antiseptic wound cleaner
  • Bandages
  • Disposable gloves
  • Face mask

Get as much exercise as you can

The health benefits of exercise are well-known and documented. Apart from improving your overall health, exercise strengthens your immune system. In turn, a stronger immune system makes you less susceptible to infection.

Exercise regimens often fall by the wayside when travelling, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you know which hotel you’ll be staying in, simply check if they have a fitness gym that you can use. No gym? Pack a pair of running shoes and go for a quick jog around the area where you’re staying. Doing pushups, burpees, and yoga in your room will also help you work a sweat.

Stay healthy on your next business trip

Fear of COVID-19 aside, travel in itself can already be stressful on the body. But with planning and preventive measures, you can increase your chances of staying healthy all throughout your next business trip.

In summary, remember to do the following:

  • Work on your health at home
  • Be careful where you get your food and water
  • Take the necessary medication beforehand
  • Always wash your hands, and keep and use hand sanitisers
  • Avoid touching your face and public high-touch points
  • Get travel insurance
  • Pack a health kit
  • Exercise during your trip

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