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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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Planes, Cruise Ships, and Germs

Boost your chances of healthy travel by taking a few preventive steps.

Flu Season Coming continued...

4. Consider getting a flu shot before you travel. Some experts like Schaffner worry that this year's flu season may be harsher than in the last three years.

It takes two weeks to get maximum immune protection from the flu shot, Schaffner says. But getting the shot late can still confer some protection. "From the moment you get the inoculation, your immune system begins to rev up in response to the vaccine."

"Although colds are a bother," Schaffner adds, "influenza is the viral infection that will put you into the hospital. It's the one that can get complicated by pneumonia, it's the one that year in and year out, on average, causes 36,000 deaths each year. It's the serious one. Get vaccinated. Protect yourself. Then you'll be a good citizen on the airplane and at home. You won't transmit influenza to anyone else, either."

What Doesn't Help?

Does wearing a mask help to protect you from colds and flu on planes? "I think that's going a little overboard. I don't think that's going to make a difference," Brunette says. "It doesn't seem realistic to me that people should be wearing masks on an airplane."

Schaffner doesn't believe that blankets or pillows transmit germs, either. "It's never been shown, and it's highly unlikely," he says. If so, "we would be in a hard place. We would be anxious about staying at hotels and being in any kind of group circumstance, if that were the case."

What about taking popular over-the-counter products, such as Airborne? This herbal cold remedy claims to help prevent colds by boosting the immune system. Its ingredients include vitamin C, zinc, and echinacea.

No need to buy these remedies, according to Schaffner. He says that he's "skeptical" of these types of products because they lack good studies to show effectiveness. "The quip is: 'In God we trust. All others must provide data.'"

Battling Noroviruses on Cruise Ships

If you're on a cruise, don't ruin your trip with much concern about germs, experts say. But realize that in the semi-confined quarters of a cruise ship, contagious illnesses can spread fast, particularly noroviruses. These viruses cause what many call the "stomach flu." Typical symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramping last for one to two days, according to the CDC.

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