Staying Healthy on the Road: Why Travelers get Sick
As I told you in an earlier post, one of the biggest problems we ran into on our Alaska trip was illness. Judy caught an epic cold and had a flare up of an old health problem. I remember thinking at the time how common it was to catch a cold during or right after a trip. It seems that somehow, traveling or road trips makes us substantially more susceptible to common illnesses or makes existing problems worse. If we fly, we tend to blame being trapped in the plane with other peoples germ as the main cause; and while that may contribute, I think there is much more to the story than just that. It’s the feather that broke the camel’s back, the real problem was everything that was piled on before it.
Since the majority of new vandwellers and RVers spend much of their first year traveling, I really wanted to offer some insight into why we get sick and what we can do to avoid it. Much more than that, to some degree all vandwellers live on the road and so finding the causes and solutions of health issues caused by the road becomes critically important to us; probably the single greatest issue we face.
Because this is a really big and important topic, I’m going to break it down into two parts. Today we are going to look why we are more susceptible to illness as vandwellers and travelers and in the next post I’ll talk about what I see as solutions.
Lesson Number Eleven: Take care of your health; why we get sick.
Most Americans are not very good at taking care of our health anyway, but generally when you hit the road even that mediocre care goes down the tubes. However, I think that’s a mistake. It’s more important to take excellent care of your health while traveling or during a Road Trip than at any other time, because it’s when you are most susceptible to getting sick. How many times have you gone on a vacation and come down with a cold and flu? If you are like most people, pretty often. Why do we so often get sick on trips? If you think about it, it’s totally reasonable that you would get sick while traveling for these reasons:
1) Most of us are older: While I am delighted by how many young people are making the change to vandwelling and RVing, we are still a predominately older crowd. The simple fact is that the older we get the more physical problems we are susceptible to and the less our bodies are able to cope and adapt to sudden changes. And sudden changes is what a Road Trip is all about! At 59, I’m much more likely to get sick on a Road Trip than I was at 29 if for no other reason that my immune system is nowhere near as strong as it was then. And science makes it very clear, that when I’m 69 I will be much more susceptible than I am now. That’s why I am going now instead of waiting until then!!!
2) A large quantity of extra stress: Getting ready for the trip piles on an abundance of new stress on top of all your normal day-to-day stress; that weakens your immune system to some degree. Then, the trip itself can be extremely stressful because almost nothing ever goes exactly as planned. Some examples of that are, the budget, traffic, road conditions, relationships and even the weather. On our trip, we found driving through Canada to be stressful because of the switch to kilometers and liters. And they have the most bizarre road signs I’ve ever seen—many of them we never did figure out. Generally, none of these things are big in themselves, in fact most of them are small. But because the small stresses of a Road Trip are totally different and unique from your daily life, you aren’t adapted to it and it hits you harder. Then they combine and add up to having a very large impact on you. Modern science has conclusively proven that stress can have a tremendous impact on our health. So the sudden addition of large and unique stress weakens your immune system and you get sick at the worst possible time.
3) You are going to new areas and being exposed to many new things: I’m not just talking about going to Mexico and running into Montezuma’s revenge; even going to a different region of this country can expose you to many different small circumstances, and when they combine they can add up to really hurt your health. The four corners of our country have radically different food habits, climates, bugs and physical situations. When you visit a different area, your body becomes unusually susceptible to problems. Here are some examples:
- Different strains of cold and flu bugs. The east coast is separated from the west coast by large mountains, deserts and the plains. It’s easy to see how there could be small differences in germs that make you more susceptible.
- Different allergens and insects that you may not even know had an impact on you: Maybe you are adapted to all the plants in Georgia, but the new ones in Arizona set off your allergies and weaken your immune system, allowing you to get sick. There are numerous flowers, trees and bushes that only grow in certain areas of the country. Being exposed to them for the first time can send you into a spiral of bad health. A good example is Valley Fever which is a fungus that only exists in the desert southwest, and yet it can make you very sick. West Nile Virus is another health problem that is transmitted by mosquitoes in only a few parts of the country.
- New weather patterns that you aren’t adapted for: things like unusual heat or cold, or extreme humidity or dryness. We all know how much more likely we are to get sick at the change of seasons and taking a Road Trip from Arizona to Washington state, Maine or Florida can present an even greater change of temperatures and humidity in an even shorter period of time.
- Higher elevation: If you lived in Florida all your life, don’t think you won’t be affected by a visit to 10,000 feet in Colorado, because you will. That constant lack of oxygen is going to search out every weakness in your immune system and health and tremendously aggravate it.
5) We give up healthy lifestyle habits: Hopefully, you have some healthy lifestyle habits that relieve stress and give you exercise, all too often in the rush of travel or the small space of a van we drop those things like a hot potato. Sometimes they are much more difficult to do so we let them slide by the wayside. That’s a bad idea! Here are some examples of what I mean:
- Taking vitamins and supplements: Because of space and time limitations, you may find yourself dropping a healthy regimen of supplements. It’s just one more nail in the coffin of getting sick.
- Walking, running or biking: In the rush of a road trip, these great habits that are critical to our health are too often lost. Can you hear them pounding the nails?
- Exercise (aerobics, weights, and martial arts): I’ve known a few people who carried weights in their van, but not many. Maintaining this habit takes some determination.
- Making Connections with others: Many studies have shown that being alone is not good for our health. And yet connections with others is one of the first things that goes for travelers and vandwellers.
- Serving others: Again, nothing is more important to your health than a sense of meaning and purpose. You need it every bit as much as you need food, water or shelter!
- Meditation: whether formal or informal a quiet time alone in yourself has proven to be great for your health physically, mentally and emotionally.
- Yoga or Tai Chi: Millions (billions?) of people around the world can testify to the health benefits of these ancient practices. In the Orient, many companies pay their employees to do it because in the long run their better health saves the company money.
All of these things greatly increase our health, and without them, we can easily get sick
When you add all of those small health problems up, they become much greater than the sum of their parts. It’s no wonder that we so often get sick on a Road Trip. It’s hard to see how we ever avoid it!
In my next post I’ll share some ideas I think will help reduce our risk of health problems on the road.