Why Do We Get Sick On Holiday?

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Have you gone away only to fall sick after a few days? Let the experts explain why it happens and how to stay healthy

Becoming ill in the first few days of a holiday is so common that Dutch psychologist Dr Ad Vingerhoets, who has investigated the phenomenon, coined the term “leisure sickness”.

In some cases we catch a bug simply because we come into contact with unfamiliar viruses and bacteria. Airports and planes are hotbeds of germs and respiratory viruses, such as colds, can survive at least two days on surfaces.

Description: Becoming ill in the first few days of a holiday is so common

Becoming ill in the first few days of a holiday is so common

There’s also the undoubted fact that minor symptoms you usually ignore, such as vague aches and pains, can become more prominent when you’re trying to wind down. “It’s not so much a matter of actually getting sick more during time off, but of becoming more aware of symptoms,” says Dr Vingerhoets.

However, there are also three ways that the psychological changes associated with holidays can also make us more susceptible to illness:

1.    Immune system slump

Stress can activate the immune system so health problems are suppressed during everyday life. The minute you start to de-stress, however, the immune system falls apart, says Dr Stafford Lightman, Professor of Medicine at the University of Bristol, an expert on how the brain regulates stress hormone production. “When you’re stressed out, your body produces high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which helps to keep your immune system active,” explains Dr Lightman. “When you de-stress for a short time, however, because your body is dependent on a high level of cortisol, your immune system functions poorly until it readjusts. The result? You are more likely to pick up infections. Although not scientifically proven, this is logical and makes sense.”

Description: Your immune system falls apart the minute you start to de-stress

Your immune system falls apart the minute you start to de-stress

2.    Underload syndrome

When it comes to holidays, this may be as bad as overload. If you thrive on a high-octane lifestyle, time off can lead to a decrease in feel-good hormones accompanied by a slowing of metabolism, a reduction in energy, a sluggish immune system – and greater susceptibility to infections. “People who are responsible for others, such as teachers, often unconsciously postpone being ill until they break up,” says Dr Vingerhoets. A classic example of mind over matter.

3.    Getaway stress

“All too often we rush around trying to get organized in the week before a holiday. By the time we go away we’re frazzled, anxious – and prey to every passing bug,” says Harley Street psychotherapist Christine Webber, who analysed the findings of a year-long study into physical and mental health before, during and after holiday for travel firm Kuoni and health charity Nuffield Health. Add to this anxieties about getting to the airport on time, remembering your passport and the physical strain of heaving a heavy bag around, and stress levels can soar.

Description: Remember to pack in good time

Remember to pack in good time

Easy ways to stay healthy abroad

·         Lessen stress by packing in good time, and get as much sleep as possible in the week before you go away.

·         Give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport, and travel as light as you can.

·         Wash and dry your hands when you use the airport or plane facilities, and before meals. Avoid touching your nose or eyes to avoid spreading germs.

·         Pick up a pack of antibacterial wipes for your hands, tray tables and arm rests, and use them regularly.

·         Avoid caffeine and alcohol, and drink water to stay hydrated on board the plane. Dry air in the cabin can dry out the mucus membranes in your nose, a defence against respiratory bugs.

·         Save sightseeing trips for the later part of your holiday. Over the first few days, steer clear of too much sun, sea, food and drink to give your body time to adjust.

·         Some exercise can help to defuse stress and keep your immune system primed. A gentle swim or a brisk walk should do the trick.

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