How to Avoid Germs When You Travel

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on December 17, 2021
photo of family waiting at gate in airport

If you're traveling with children, the last thing you want is for them to spend their vacation sick in bed. But how cautious should you be about germs and illness when traveling with kids in the U.S.?

Experts agree that a few major precautions, like washing hands frequently, are critical to keeping nasty germs from making children ill while traveling. But beyond those, how careful you are about germs on the road depends on how careful you are about germs at home.

If you don't mind your children crawling around in other people's homes, it's probably not a big deal for them to crawl around in a hotel as long as you check first for safety hazards and wash their hands afterward. But what if the thought of your child touching a hotel room floor or snuggling up in an airplane blanket makes you feel ill? You may be more comfortable taking more measures, experts say. And some children are just more prone to illness when traveling than others.

In either case, you'll probably feel more comfortable taking extra care.

Here are some strategies you can use to help keep illness at bay when traveling with healthy children. If you are planning to travel with a newborn infant or a child with a compromised immune system, talk to your child's doctor first about special precautions.

Are children more vulnerable to illness when traveling? Yes, and experts point to two main reasons: Most children are not particularly good about keeping things out of their mouths, and they aren't particularly careful with hand hygiene.

In addition, children's immune systems are less developed than those of adults, and this makes them more vulnerable to illness.

These three strategies can help protect them:

Make sure your child is up to date on immunizations, even when traveling in the U.S. Be sure your child has had routine vaccinations for measles, whooping cough, and other serious illnesses on the normal CDC schedule. And anyone in your travel party who hasn't gotten a yearly flu shot should consider getting one before heading out. The CDC recommends an annual flu shot for everyone six months old and older.

A flu shot provides double benefits. It protects your child and helps cut down on the general level of flu being transmitted.

Practice good hand hygiene.Washing hands often, especially before meals, is the No. 1 way to prevent illness, at home or while traveling. Of course, you should help small children wash hands and teach older kids how to wash them thoroughly. Using warm soap and water, lather up and scrub all over for 20 seconds, then rinse and dry. While you're at it, encourage your kids not to put dirty hands -- or other things -- in their mouth.

Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Children should wash their hands with soap and water when they can, but you should have a sanitizing gel or wipes with at least 60% alcohol available when soap and water aren't. This is especially important in places where it may be difficult to get to a restroom, such as at amusement parks or even on airplanes.

Make sure children rub hand sanitizer all over their hands until dry. If you can see dirt on their hands, however, hand sanitizers won't be enough. Hand sanitizers are dangerous for children if they swallow any, so store them in a bag safely away from small children, and supervise their use.

Airplanes have gotten a reputation as flying cold-and-flu factories. But it's actually hard to determine just what role they play in making children, or adults, sick during travel.

Experts agree that when kids have more contact with other people, they're more likely to get sick. But that can happen anywhere there are lots of people -- including malls, restaurants, or rest stops.

Concerns about airplane germs often focus on air quality. A 2008 study of cabin-air bacteria in 12 commercial airplanes showed, though, they do not pose a risk for healthy passengers. And experts say your risk of getting a respiratory infection is higher on a bus or in an airport than on a plane.

A bigger concern, according to some experts, is airplane surfaces. The majority of infections, including respiratory infections, are passed by contact occurring within a very short distance rather than through the air.

Consider these measures if you're concerned about airplane germs:

  • Sanitize "high touch" areas. Germs linger longer on nonporous materials like plastic. Wipe down surfaces such as tray tables, seat armrests, and lavatory door handles with an alcohol-based wipe or gel before your child uses them. With the short cleaning time between flights, these areas do not always get cleaned and disinfected.
  • Avoid touching restroom surfaces. When washing your child's hands in an airplane or other public restroom, turn off the faucet with a paper towel. Then use another paper towel to dry hands and open the door.
  • Bring your own blankets and pillows. If airplane blankets or pillows aren't delivered to you in a package, chances are they've been used. Having a familiar blanket and pillow to curl up with may also make children more comfortable during air travel.
  • Drink bottled water. In water quality tests on 158 airplanes in 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered coliform bacteria and E. coli in some water samples. In 2009, the EPA established tougher rules for airplane water. Generally, however, the numbers of food- and water-borne illnesses from airplane travel are low.
  • Ask sick passengers near you to observe cold and flu etiquette. If someone near you isn't covering coughs or sneezes, ask them to, even if it makes you feel awkward to do so. And be sure you do the same. Also, make sure your child coughs or sneezes into a tissue or their elbow and washes their hands afterward.
  • Put distance between your child and sick passengers. Ask the flight attendant if you and your child can move to another row. If that's not possible, take the seat next to the sick person instead of putting your child there. You're likely to be more conscious of what you touch and how to prevent infection.


  • Hotels. One study found that when people with colds stayed overnight in hotel rooms, many surfaces remained contaminated with rhinovirus for at least a day. But how concerned should you be? Health experts point out that most hotel rooms are better cleaned than most homes. Towels and sheets are changed daily, and the room is cleaned somewhat every day. Still, experts suggest wiping down remote controls, light switches, telephones, doorknobs, toilet seat handles, faucet handles, and other high-touch areas as a precaution when traveling with children.
  • Amusement parks. Be careful what you eat. Avoid food that may have been sitting out for a long time. Since you can't wipe down germy surfaces at amusement parks, hand hygiene is especially important.
  • Swimming pools and water parks. Have kids rinse off before and after taking the plunge at pools and water parks. These can be breeding grounds for pinkeye (conjunctivitis), skin viruses, and cryptosporidium and giardia, which cause diarrhea. Chlorination does not kill all bacteria. Also teach young children to avoid swallowing water in pools and water parks.

Too many treats, not enough sleep, and being on the go can wear down children's immunity. This can make them more vulnerable to illness. These strategies can help kids stay healthy on the road:

  • Encourage children to drink liquids.
  • Stick closely to your child's normal, healthy diet. This not only gives kids nutrients to help fight infection -- it can also help prevent diarrhea or constipation, which children are prone to when traveling. Consider bringing your kids' favorite healthy foods on road trips or airplanes instead of buying fast food or snacks.
  • Don't skimp on sleep. Sticking to your children's normal bedtime and naptime will help them sleep better. Packing favorite stuffed animals or blankets can also help children sleep in strange places so they get enough rest.

Whatever strategies you use to keep harmful bacteria at bay, try to keep germs and illness in perspective. It's not uncommon for healthy children, especially under age 5, to get several colds a year -- and usually not from strangers on the road. Most often infections come from the people we love.

Show Sources


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David Shlim, MD, travel medicine specialist, Jackson Hill, Wyo.; president-elect, International Society of Travel Medicine.

Jeffrey R. Starke, MD, director of infection control, Texas Children's Hospital, Houston; professor and vice chairman of pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston.

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