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How to Avoid the Hidden Health Hazards of Travel

Experts offer tips to help prevent injury and illness on your next trip

man walking up the stairs with suitcase
kumikomini/Getty Images

This past summer I traveled to London and then to Scotland to attend my daughter’s college graduation. It was a jam-packed two days of garden parties, family dinners and cocktail hours following the commencement ceremony. 

On the day I traveled back to London, a shortage of taxis forced me to wheel my large suitcase and carry-on bag about a mile over cobblestones to the train station — my purse and shopping bag slung over my shoulder. In Edinburgh, I carried my bags up a flight of stairs in order to make my connection, and at Heathrow airport there was walking and moving my bags through a security line for more than an hour. 

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Once seated on the plane, I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my right elbow. Over the next week the pain got worse and extended down my arm. I went to an orthopedist, who diagnosed tennis elbow. He surmised that dragging and carrying my heavy bags was the cause. 

​The pain only lasted another week or so, thanks to ice and stretching, but the whole experience left me wondering what other dangers might await me on my next trip. So I asked some experts. 

​“I frequently hear stories like yours,” says Sajida Saeed Chaudry, M.D., a primary care physician who specializes in preventive care at Johns Hopkins Community Physicians. She added that her patients, especially those age 50 and over, tell her tales of getting lost while on vacation and having to walk for miles, causing foot injuries, or hurting their back by putting a heavy bag in an overhead compartment or taking it off a conveyor belt.

​“There’s an element of stress and rushing, creating the perfect storm for things to go wrong,” Chaudry says. 

​Before you go

​Chaudry has some simple tips to help prevent injuries or health emergencies during travel, beginning with comfortable footwear. She also recommends establishing an exercise routine prior to traveling and ramping it up if you’re planning on doing a lot of walking. “If you’re routinely walking and suddenly go from 5,000 to 20,000 steps, those extra steps won’t bother you as much,” Chaudry says.

​Another travel tip: Pack extra must-have items in your carry-on bag. “I always tell patients, when they’re traveling, to have a back-up pair of glasses or hearing aids, and to keep them (close). Don’t put them in checked luggage,” Chaudry says. “It’s also a good idea to have your medical history and list of medications handy.” 

​In the airport and on the plane

​Traveling light and using elevators when possible can help lower the risk of injury. If you notice pain from walking or carrying a suitcase, Chaudry says to follow the RICE regimen: Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate. And she cautions against ignoring pain and pushing through, especially for those at greater risk of fracture, such as those with osteoporosis. “If the pain isn’t going away after a few days, that's really a sign to check in with the doctor and make sure that there's an evaluation,” she says.

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​One of my own travel fears is developing deep vein thrombosis (when a blood clot forms in a deep vein, often in the leg) while flying. To help avoid DVT on long flights, Chaudry says to stay hydrated and mobile, and try in-seat stretches. She also recommends that those with risk factors for DVT (including cancer, obesity and smoking) wear compression socks to promote blood circulation in the legs. 

​And don’t be embarrassed to ask for a wheelchair at the airport. Sonja L. Rosen, M.D., chief of geriatric medicine at Cedars-Sinai in Beverly Hills, California, and a professor of medicine, says this is particularly important if you have a balance or gait problem or a health issue that makes you tired with exertion, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or congestive heart failure. “Don't overdo it and put yourself at higher risk of a fall,” she says.

​At the destination 

​Every year, 1 in 4 people age 65 and over report falling — and traveling can be a particularly risky time while navigating unfamiliar spaces like hotel rooms and pool decks.

​Rosen recommends using a night-light or leaving on the bathroom light and shutting the door in hotel rooms. In pool areas, avoid wearing flip-flops or pool shoes. “For those who have a primary balance or gait problem, they’re really dangerous because they're slippery, they don't conform around the foot and they’re loose fitting. It’s easy to get the sole caught on something and fall,” Rosen says. Formfitting shoes or going barefoot are safer options around the pool. 

​Overall, try not to hold multiple objects, and always have a free hand to steady yourself. If you normally use an assisted-walking device, don’t try to go without it on vacation. 

​“We can all fall at any age. The risk when you're older is that morbidity associated with falling is so much greater,” Rosen says. “You're more likely to fracture and then you're going to have a harder healing.” 

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