How to Avoid Getting Sick After Traveling

The complete guide to preparing your body for travel and avoiding illness as your summer travel plans approach

Getting sick during or after traveling is a common occurrence. In fact, according to Weill Cornell Medicine, up to 80% of travelers are affected by post-vacation illnesses!1

As a once-upon-a-time digital nomad, I’ve had more than my fair share of travel bugs. 

Thankfully, after many years, I have discovered tried and tested ways to reduce my chances of getting sick while traveling while still enjoying myself at the destination.

In this article, I lay out everything we well-traveled wanderers do to avoid getting sick after travel. This will include everything from certain hygiene tips to immune boosters and more! 

An infographic listing causes of travel sickness and tips on how to avoid falling ill.

Causes of Travel Sickness

Before we address how to avoid getting sick, we first need to briefly cover some of the most common sources of sickness while traveling.

While we might come into contact with some of these illnesses in our day-to-day lives, there are some conditions that make us more susceptible, such as:

  • Jet lag
  • Lack of sleep
  • Change in climate or altitude
  • Eating unfamiliar foods
  • Unsanitary conditions (depending on where you travel)
  • Increased contact with people coming from far-flung places

Whether you experience one or all of these, your immune system can take a mighty hit under these conditions, increasing your chances of becoming run down, experiencing digestive issues, or contracting an illness.

However, not all travel sicknesses are the same and can be the result of wildly different causes.

Viral, Bacterial, and other Respiratory Infections

At the very tippy top of this list has to be viral infections. These can include everything from the common cold (flu) to serious illnesses like Yellow Fever.

Unfortunately, it can be quite difficult to completely avoid illnesses like the common cold without totally sacrificing the enjoyment of your vacation.

However, there are many preventative measures you can take to reduce your chances of contracting some of the most serious illnesses out there, which we’ll cover in the next section.

Common causes:

Typically from touching unsanitary surfaces, being infected by insect bites, or coming into contact with infected persons:

  • Yellow Fever
  • Dengue Fever
  • Typhoid Fever
  • Tuberculosis
  • Zika Virus
  • COVID-19

Common symptoms:

  • Upper respiratory: Fever, body aches, chills, fatigue, loss of appetite, loss of sense of smell, sore throat, coughing, sneezing, runny nose
  • Digestive: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Skin conditions: rashes, sores, blisters, warts

Gastrointestinal Infections (aka Traveler’s Diarrhea)

I have had the immense displeasure of experiencing this particular illness twice in my life, once in Mexico and once in Thailand.

And I’m not alone—according to Johns Hopkins Traveler’s Diarrhea is the most common illness for travelers to experience and occurs most commonly in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and The Middle East.2

Traveler’s Diarrhea typically occurs within 10 days of travel, generally to a place with sub-par hygiene practices such as improper hand washing, unsafe food storage, and lack of cleanliness of food preparation areas.

Though it can feel like the end of the world while it’s happening to you, most of the time, the infection will pass within a few days, and you’ll return to normal.

If you are feeling ill and continuing to experience severe symptoms for more than 5-7 days (especially if you can’t keep food down), it’s advised to see a doctor promptly to get IV fluids to avoid dehydration. 

Common causes:

  • Improper hand-washing practices
  • Lack of proper food storage
  • Poor cleanliness of utensils, food storage, and preparation areas
  • Unsafe handling and preparation of food

Common symptoms:

  • Diarrhea 
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Bloating
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Urgent bowel movements (can’t wait to use the bathroom)

Parasitic Infections

Maybe it was the unsupervised access I had to Animal Planet as a kid because I once truly feared I was at risk of contracting a parasite anytime I stepped into water that wasn’t chlorinated.

And while I don’t have this fear today, the risks (however small) are there, especially in places with contaminated water or where you can contract them from certain vectors, such as malaria in mosquitoes.

Common causes:

There are three main types of parasites: protozoa, helminths, and ectoparasites.

  • Protozoa: single-celled parasites that can infect the body, including the digestive tract, eyes, skin, etc.
  • Helminths: generic term for parasitic worms, including roundworms, tapeworms, thorny-headed worms, and flukes, also known as trematodes.
  • Ectoparasites: parasites that burrow into your skin and live there, such as ticks, mites, lice, botflies, and fleas

You can also contract parasites from a number of sources:

  • Contaminated water
  • Undercooked meats
  • Insect bites
  • Contaminated soil
  • Unprotected sex
  • Contaminated surfaces

However, don’t worry too much, as parasites are more common in rural areas, which you are less likely to come into contact with while traveling.

Common symptoms:

  • Flu-like symptoms (fever, muscular pains, fatigue, nausea, vomiting)
  • Neurological symptoms (severe headaches, seizures, disorientation)
  • Rashes, red patches of skin, itching, sores

Vacation Sickness or Leisure Sickness

This might sound like the beginning of a bad joke, but trust me, it’s not. Vacation Sickness, also known as Leisure Sickness, is a real physiological and psychological syndrome that can affect those we might affectionately call workaholics—people who work long hours, sometimes nonstop, and are often overworked and overstressed.

Vacation Sickness can occur when our bodies finally get a break from the nonstop adrenaline that can be a result of stressful jobs, i.e., weekends or vacations.

If you have a high workload and are experiencing stress from it, your cortisol levels can remain extremely high during the week. This can weaken your immune system or cause you to miss those little aches and pains you’ve been ignoring all week. 

This can cause you to fall ill very easily or to start feeling poorly as soon as your cortisol and adrenaline levels decrease.

Research shows that about 3% of individuals experience this syndrome, and those who have a high perceived workload and are unable to (mentally) separate their work and leisure time are at an increased risk of experiencing leisure sickness.3

Common causes:

  • High-stress job
  • Excess workload
  • Inability to relax
  • Inability to make time for relaxation

Common symptoms:

  • Fatigue, headaches, and flu-like symptoms that appear primarily on the weekends or when on vacation

Environmental Illnesses

Lastly, we can sometimes experience such a drastic change in our environment that we experience a kind of sickness that can affect us both physically and mentally.

These can include:

  • Altitude sickness: This illness is caused by ascending too rapidly to a higher altitude (typically a mountain top) without allowing your body time to adjust to the lower pressure and reduced supply of oxygen. Symptoms include headache, lightheadedness, fatigue, vomiting, insomnia, and, in serious cases, disorientation, confusion, and uncoordinated movements.
  • Heat stroke and dehydration: If you’re not used to elevated temperatures and travel to an area much hotter than what you are accustomed to, you may not realize you need to drink more water than usual and move to the shade during peak temperatures in the afternoon. Individuals who are older or on certain medications may need to take extra care to stay cool and hydrated in these climates.
  • Travel-related stress: Before getting married, travel with your soon-to-be spouse, as this is often considered a true test of a relationship and how well you can handle stress individually and as a team. In all seriousness, though, travel can bring the best and the worst out of you due to stress. This can make you unusually irritable, anxious, and even temporarily depressed, sometimes causing you to make poor or irrational decisions.
  • Culture shock: Culture shock is a surprising addition to this list but is important to include as it can seriously impact your mental health. With the advent of the internet, it’s easier than ever to get an accurate idea of what a destination will be like, making your expectations a bit more realistic. However, some places—ever heard of Paris Syndrome?—have been so built up in the media and entertainment that expectations can way overshadow the reality of what a location is really like.4 In serious cases, this can cause intense psychological symptoms such as hallucinations, rapid heart rate, panic attacks, dizziness, and nausea.

8 Tips to Prevent Illness When Traveling

The key to good health while traveling is preparation, not prevention. I’ll say it again for those in the back—preparation, not prevention! 

This is because you cannot 100% completely prevent illness while traveling, especially if you also want to enjoy your trip. 

Yes, I add the caveat “if you want to enjoy your trip” because you could travel and totally prevent illness by:

  • Avoiding contact with humans and animals
  • Cooking all your food in your own kitchen
  • Not going into crowded areas
  • Wearing a mask at all times
  • Only drinking bottled water
  • Never touching contaminated surfaces

Obviously, this isn’t a reasonable expectation for 99.999% of people on vacation and would contradict the entire point of travel for leisure in the first place—to enjoy yourself and relax.

Unfortunately, there is no relaxation with this kind of protocol.

While I never like to discourage someone from traveling, if it is vital to your health and well-being—physical or mental—that you do not get ill, you must avoid travel as it is an inherently risky activity.

With that said, there are plenty of ways to prepare yourself for travel to avoid or lessen the severity of certain illnesses. 

Here’s what I recommend as a well-traveled, health-conscious person who still eats, swims, drinks, and relaxes while enjoying my travel or vacation.

Get Your Vaccinations

It should go without saying that if you are traveling anywhere—especially to a less-developed country or a country known for the prevalence of certain diseases or viruses—you should get preventative vaccines.

These can help fend off some of the world’s deadliest and worst illnesses, particularly viral infections.

Some countries even mandate it for travelers to enter. So, as always, do plenty of research on the entry requirements for your destination well before traveling.

Here are a few of the most common diseases you may need to get vaccinated for if a country is a high-risk area for them:

  • Yellow Fever
  • Dengue Fever
  • Typhoid Fever
  • Tuberculosis
  • Malaria
  • Zika Virus
  • COVID-19

Typically, these are diseases found on the African continent, and in less developed regions of Asia and Central and South America.

Nowadays, COVID-19 is considered a globally endemic disease that can be contracted anywhere, at any time. If you haven’t yet, it’s prudent to get a vaccine or a booster before you travel, especially to areas with a limited healthcare system.

Wear a Mask

We all thought our mask-wearing days were behind us, but to this day, many of us (yes, including myself) will continue to wear masks specifically when traveling.

This is entirely anecdotal, of course, but I have personally noticed a stark difference in my health when I wear a mask versus when I don’t—especially when traveling internationally.

When I don’t wear a mask, I’m almost guaranteed to get sick, whether I’m going to or returning from my destination.

While the efficacy of masks is a hotly debated topic, it is proven to do a few things:

Here are a couple of tips if you wear a mask the next time you travel. 

  1. Bring multiple masks to change out frequently to increase effectiveness and reduce the gross feeling of having a dirty mask on your face for hours.
  2. If you get the dreaded earache from wearing a mask, especially during long-haul trips, it helps to use an ear saver or mask extender like these ones.

Get Adequate Rest

Sleep and rest are two of the most important things you can do to reduce your chances of getting sick.

This is because, according to the Mayo Clinic, our bodies release cytokines while we sleep. These are proteins that help promote sleep but are also needed to help fight off infection and inflammation.8

Certain antibodies and infection-fighting cells may also increase when you don’t get enough sleep, increasing the chances your body may overreact to the presence of an infection, causing symptoms of sickness.9

While it’s fair to want to go-go-go once you land, it will be much better for you in the long run if you take it easy for the first 24 to 48 hours, especially if you’ve made a big time change.

Focus on rehydrating, eating light foods, and enjoying the cozy surroundings of your hotel room, the pool, or a comfortable chair at a nearby eatery or cafe. 

Eat and Drink With Caution

Eat and drink? I know I don’t have to tell you twice to do the obvious here—you’re on vacation, after all!

But rather than the usual over-eating and excess drinking, I caution you to take it easy with what you consume the first few days as you adjust to your surroundings and the time change.

As I mentioned in the previous section, as your body is trying to catch up to the changes in your environment, the last thing you want to do is give it too much too fast.

  • Avoid food that is very rich, spicy, fatty, salty, etc. (yeah, I know, that’s all the good stuff)
  • Try to consume minimal to no alcohol and caffeine on the first day 
  • Drinks lots of water
  • Eat whole foods like vegetables, minimally processed proteins, and complex carbohydrates


Most digestive illnesses are contracted from unhygienic food establishments or contaminated water. So, pay attention to how workers handle food, especially if you’re grabbing a bite at a small food stand or truck.

The standards for cleanliness will be very different in some countries, so you may not find many hygienic establishments if you follow this advice. If you’re willing to take the risk for the experience, though, I get it!


However, one mistake I won’t make again, which I believe was the primary cause of my own gastrointestinal infections, was consuming fruits and vegetables washed with unfiltered water. 

So, if you don’t trust the cleanliness of an establishment or you know you can’t drink the local water, I do not recommend eating any raw produce unless you’ve washed it yourself with bottled water.

Following that advice, consult online forums or ask the locals if the tap water is potable or if they recommend only drinking and brushing your teeth with filtered or bottled water.

Prevent Motion Sickness Before It Starts

Whether it’s due to a hangover or a stomach bug, feeling nauseous has to be one of the most miserable feelings when you’re sick.

Nausea caused by motion sickness, though, hits differently.

This type of nausea is caused by mixed signals from the body, inner ear, and eyes, which are then sent to the brain. 

Sometimes the brain doesn’t know what to do with these conflicting signals, and its reaction is to cause nausea in an attempt to get us to stop doing whatever it is we’re doing.

However, when traveling in a car, bus, boat, or airplane, you can’t exactly hop out at any time. There are some ways to prevent this nausea before it starts, though.

  • Take Dramamine before you start feeling sick (may cause sleepiness and fatigue)
  • Take a natural ginger supplement or chew on ginger candies
  • Try acupressure bracelets
  • If in a car or bus, sit in the front
  • Choose a window seat on planes or trains; on trains, sit facing forward in the direction of travel
  • If on a boat, stand at the back of the boat and stare at the horizon; stand outside in the fresh air, if possible
  • Lie down and rest, if possible
  • Stay hydrated
  • Eat light, plain food

Follow Good Hygiene Habits

I’ll say it now: This is probably the most effective advice on this list. That’s because keeping up good hygiene while you travel is one of the easiest ways to avoid getting sick.

  • Wash your hands frequently, especially before meals, or carry hand sanitizer with you.
  • Avoid touching your mouth, eyes, or nose throughout the day.
  • Bathe frequently, especially if you’re in a big city with lots of pollution, it’s hot outside, or you’ve been sweating.
  • If you need to cough or sneeze, do so into the crook of your elbow or a tissue. Wash your hands afterward.

If you start to feel sick at any point on your trip, do everyone a favor and stay in your room. It isn’t fair to the locals that you go out and spread an illness because you want to make the most of your trip. If you have to go out, wear a mask.

If the whole family is traveling together, try to prevent the spread of illness by making sure everyone is wearing masks when in the same room, washing hands frequently, and the infected person is using a tissue when sneezing, coughing, or blowing their nose.

If you really want to prevent others from getting sick, you may also want to disinfect shared surfaces such as tables, light switches, bathroom surfaces, and doorknobs.


While vitamins and supplements can never prevent illness, there is some evidence they can lessen the severity of your symptoms if you do get sick.

This is one of the health benefits of vitamin C. By taking this vitamin in higher doses before, during, and after your travel, you may be able to reduce the severity of your illness if you end up sick and speed up recovery time.

Vitamin D is also associated with improved immune system function and can help our bodies fight off respiratory illnesses and upper respiratory tract infections.

A healthy gut microbiome is also key to maintaining the proper function of our immune system. So, if you feel you would benefit from probiotics, it may be wise to start well before your trip so your gut can adapt before you travel.

When To Avoid Travel

Unfortunately, there are times when it would be wise to avoid travel altogether, in particular if you’re not in the best of health.

If you are already feeling sick, consider postponing your travel, especially if you can do so without major monetary penalties. 

If you suffer from chronic diseases, auto-immune diseases, heart disease, or other severe medical conditions, you may want to get a doctor’s stamp of approval or ask their advice before planning travel.

If you are pregnant, you may want to consider changing or delaying your travel plans, especially if you are further along in your pregnancy, as traveling during pregnancy poses risks to you and your unborn child.


Is it normal to get sick every time I travel?

Yes, according to Weill Cornell Medicine, up to 80% of travelers get sick after traveling!

Does traveling weaken your immune system?

Yes, traveling can weaken your immune system due to factors such as disrupted sleep patterns due to travel and jet lag, stress, changes in your environment, exposure to new germs, fatigue, and changes in diet.

What makes travel sickness worse?

Several things can exacerbate your illness if you’re sick while traveling, including lack of sleep, stress, drinking alcohol or caffeine, and not drinking enough water.

  1. Feeling Sick After Vacation Is More Common than You Might Think. (2023, August 30). Weill Cornell Medicine. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from
  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Traveler’s Diarrhea. 
  3. Vingerhoets, A. J., Van Huijgevoort, M., & Van Heck, G. L. (2002). Leisure sickness: a pilot study on its prevalence, phenomenology, and background. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 71(6), 311–317. 
  4. Wilson, N. (2024, 15 January). What is Paris syndrome? How culture shock can kill a trip. Independent. 
  5. Niesen, S., Ramon, D., Spencer-Hwang, R., & Sinclair, R. (2023). The Relationship Between Face Mask Use and Face-Touching Frequency in Public Areas: Naturalistic Study. Interactive journal of medical research, 12, e43308. 
  6. Boulos, L., Curran, J. A., Gallant, A., Wong, H., Johnson, C., Delahunty-Pike, A., Saxinger, L., Chu, D., Comeau, J., Flynn, T., Clegg, J., & Dye, C. (2023). Effectiveness of face masks for reducing transmission of SARS-CoV-2: a rapid systematic review. Philosophical transactions. Series A, Mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences, 381(2257), 20230133. 
  7. Kollepara, P. K., Siegenfeld, A. F., Taleb, N. N., & Bar-Yam, Y. (2021). Unmasking the mask studies: why the effectiveness of surgical masks in preventing respiratory infections has been underestimated. Journal of travel medicine, 28(7), taab144. 
  8. Olson, E.J., M.D. (n.d.) Lack of sleep: Can it make you sick? Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). 
  9. Garbarino, S., Lanteri, P., Bragazzi, N. L., Magnavita, N., & Scoditti, E. (2021). Role of sleep deprivation in immune-related disease risk and outcomes. Communications biology, 4(1), 1304. 

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