Been on an airplane lately? The one I flew on last week – a ten-hour jaunt from London to San Francisco – sounded like the hospital in one of those sci-fi movies about an outbreak of plague.
Everyone seemed to be sneezing, coughing, and blowing their nose. But was I worried about catching anything? Not at all, because I’d cleverly managed to pre-emptively contract a hideous cold before I embarked on the journey. The holidays in Seville, jolly as they are in so many ways, provide the perfect opportunity to spread germs via shared platters of party food and the local custom of kissing everyone you know on both cheeks every time you see them. This year’s bug features a legendary cough, the kind that goes on forever with increasingly horrifying violence, until people around you start backing away, wondering whether they should call an ambulance or an exorcist. Frankly, I was glad to get out of town for a while.
But with colds and flu at epidemic levels in the US and on the rise in Europe, you can’t count on outrunning health dangers. In fact, with about 3 billion people a year traveling, bringing their germs with them, it’s a safe bet your journeys will occasionally be disrupted by some form of illness.
Ideally you shouldn’t leave home while you’re ill, but the cost of changing non-refundable reservations and the pressure to show up at that family wedding or crucial business meeting make it difficult to abandon plans at the last minute. If you must hit the road in less-than-perfect health, be prepared. Consult a doctor or pharmacist to make sure you’re not in serious danger and discuss ways to stay as comfortable as possible. Here are some strategies I’ve found useful.
Before you get on a plane, take an inventory of symptoms and stock up on over-the-counter remedies. The most crucial for colds are an oral decongestant and a nasal spray to unblock sinuses and ears, which can become excruciatingly painful with changes in air pressure. If you have a scratchy throat, bring cough drops and ask the flight attendant for hot water and salt so you can gargle. In case of gastrointestinal woes, you may want something like Imodium to keep down the number of mad dashes to the restroom. If your tummy is too tender even for that, try an anti-nausea suppository. The old standbys of Coca-Cola and mint tea will help alleviate milder cases.
Dress for survival. Wear loose, comfortable clothing in multiple layers; many illnesses make your internal temperature fluctuate unexpectedly. Wrap up in a shawl or heavy scarf, being careful to keep a sore throat warm, and don’t be afraid to ask for an extra blanket as soon as you board the plane.
Eat light and (sorry about this) skip the alcohol. Heavy meals before or during a flight often add to your discomfort, and alcohol exacerbates the dehydration inherent in plane travel. Guzzle water, stick to the vegetarian or chicken dishes, and promise yourself a great meal once you land.
Need help upon arrival? Consult a pharmacist at the airport or train station. They are more likely to speak English, be familiar with travelers’ woes, and know of a doctor to consult if necessary. Your hotel staff may also have a doctor on call. Keep your dictionary handy and write out a few key phrases if you don’t speak the language.
Sometimes you don’t even need words. Two weeks ago I was chatting with a friend in Seville when I suddenly had a fit of explosive coughing that wouldn’t stop. My friend and the café's barista were startled, then alarmed, as I staggered outside, doubled over with coughing, then stumbled across the street into a pharmacy. There the staff took one look at me and handed me an industrial strength cough syrup, which I slugged down with the desperation of someone coming out of a hundred miles’ crawl through the desert.
One of the things I love about Seville is the way people live more communally. Sure, it means I’m likely to get the latest version of the cold/flu every winter, but it also means that people are standing by, ready to pour me a slug of just the right cough syrup in my hour of need.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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