As I trundled my suitcase toward the ship’s gangway, I braced for the line of crew members waiting for me. The inevitable cheerfulness, the souvenir photo.
They stopped me, but not for a snapshot: They pointed to the automatic dispenser of hand sanitizer. I was happy to oblige. In fact I appreciated their vigilance, because washing your hands is one of the most effective actions a traveler can take to stay healthy.
The latest reminder of the potential health risks of travel was when passengers aboard a recent US Airways flight learned that a traveler believed to have tuberculosis had boarded. About 70 people were detained at an emergency landing. Turned out to be a false alarm, but the scare underlined just how easily pathogens can get around.
Hotels (where the term Legionnaire’s disease was coined at a convention in 1976) remain another area of risk — along with rental cars, swimming pools and public toilets. If you really thought about the Petri dish that the traveler must wade through, you might never get past your own front steps.
There’s nothing quite so frustrating as roiling with fever or running to the bathroom when you should be skiing or hiking or swooning over a Rembrandt or a romantic sunset.
We can improve the odds that we’ll remain healthy with simple steps, notes Rosanne Galle, nurse practitioner at the Enlightened Traveler, a travel medicine program of the Valley Health Medical Group in New Jersey. Hand-washing is No. 1, she said. “Using common sense is another.”
Here are more actions you can take:
• With all those packed planes and quick turnarounds, assume your flight hasn’t been thoroughly sanitized. We’ve all heard about reused blankets and pillows. Then there’s the dog-eared in-flight magazines and safety cards. That tray table never looks wiped off. Bring sanitizer (under 3 ounces!) and wipe off any surface you are in contact with. “I’ve seen many poopie diapers changed on the tray tables,” says Sara Keagle, a flight attendant and blogger.
• BYO pillow and reading material.
• Do not for any reason stick your hand into the seatback pocket. Flight attendants have found everything from dirty diapers to used vomit bags there, Keagle says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention heads a Vessel Sanitation Program, with ship inspections, monitoring of gastrointestinal illnesses and investigating outbreaks, and posting health inspection scores. You can find those at www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp/public/public.htm.
• In exotic or sketchy ports of call, get recommendations from the crew on where to eat and drink.
• Use those hand sanitizers.
• Wear flip-flops on decks.
• Sunscreen is essential.
• Drink only bottled water.
You never know who has stayed, slept, bled, partied, spit, barfed and whatevered in your room.
Studies show that bedspreads, TV remotes, water glasses and ice buckets are all popular places for germs. Anne LaGrange Loving, a microbiologist and retired professor at Passaic County Community College who has researched the germ factor on everything from communion wine cups to the lemons squeezed into drinks, trusts nothing in a hotel room.
Loving even considered doing a study on those folded toilet-paper triangles: “It is inherently disgusting that someone else might have fingered your toilet paper before you [use it],” she said. She recommends guests “pull the paper out a few squares, yank it off, and discard that section before using it.”
Other ways to avoid germs:
• Use antibacterial wipes or sprays on the remote control, doorknobs, faucet handles and phone.
• Wash water glasses with hot water for at least two minutes. Loving only uses hotel cups if they are disposable and individually wrapped.
• Let the shower run awhile before using it, and wear flip-flops to protect your feet. Loving wouldn’t even think of using a hot tub.
• Always wear socks or slippers around the hotel room. Loving says, “No bare feet. Ever.”
• Inspect the sheets, Loving advises. For someone else’s hairs, signs of bedbugs, anything that doesn’t seem just-out-of-the-laundry. Take off the bedspread and don’t touch it again.
• While it may be impractical to take along your own sheets, bring a pillowcase. “You’ve got seven places, when you lay your head down, where germs can enter your body,” Loving says. “The head is the most likely entrance portal for infection.”
Hotels and cruise ships are increasingly staffing buffets to reduce the number of people handling the same utensils. Make sure the buffet has a germ guard.
Avoid raw seafood unless you can confirm how long it’s been sitting out.
Make sure hot food is truly hot, as lukewarm temperatures can cause bacteria to thrive. Make sure food that is supposed to be cold is really cold — e.g., mayonnaise and dairy products.
It’s a major carrier of bacteria in countries without proper water and sewage treatment. Most hotels from Europe to Latin America now offer bottled water for guests.
Water itself, in a glass, is only the most obvious to avoid. Say no to ice in drinks, drinks made with a “splash” of water, fruits and vegetables washed in water, or brushing your teeth with tap water (use bottled). Keep your mouth shut when showering.
Whether in the jungle hut or the hoity-toity luxury stalls at the Ritz in Paris, Jill’s Golden Rule of Filthy Places applies: Touch nothing. Everything is suspect.
Things I do include: using something other than naked fingers to flush the toilet (a wad of toilet paper, an elbow), and using a paper towel at the sink to turn off the water (if it doesn’t go off itself) and on the door handle. In cases where the whole bathroom looks less than well-cleaned, I will forgo the sink if I have my own hand sanitizer.