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Washing your hands is an important part of staying healthy during cold and flu season.

Wash your hands

The secret to staying healthy during the holidays is no secret at all: Wash your hands. It’s the most important thing you can do while traveling, and it’s good form year-round, but particularly important in the winter.

“Our hands are the interface between ourselves and the rest of the world,” says Gina Suh, a specialist in infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic. “In other words, our hands touch all these surfaces that are full of germs, and then we touch our own face and mucosal surfaces — such as our mouth, nose, eyes — way more than you would even notice. Most people touch their face many times in any given minute, and that can transmit illness.”

Suh recommends using good-old-fashioned soap and water from a sink to properly wash, scrubbing for a full 20 seconds. Wash before and after you eat, after using the restroom, and maybe even right now. It’s that helpful.

“I can’t stress the importance of hand hygiene enough,” Suh says. It’s “probably the biggest thing you can do to help prevent illness.”

Don’t have access to a sink or soap and water? Keep hand sanitizer with you as backup.

Manage your stressIt’s a stressful time of year, whether the source of anxiety is holiday-related or otherwise. To add insult to injury, that stress can be a detriment to your health. Suh says stress is one of the main reasons people get sick this time of year.

Sometimes it may not be the stress itself that’s a problem, but how it affects the rest of your life. For example, facing stress can lead to eating indulgently at the expense of a healthy diet.

“People may be less apt to eating fresh fruits and vegetables during the holidays and may be eating more fatty foods, meats, carbohydrates, sweets and other foods,” she says.

As you gear up for holiday travel, keep self-care in mind.

“Anytime that there’s changes in your schedule for the holiday season, your own self-care can suffer,” says Christa Schmitz, a nurse practitioner and director of nurse education for Passport Health travel clinics. “Anytime that you start neglecting your own self-care, whether it’s with sleep, diet or exercise, then you’re potentially not your best self. And so you could become more susceptible” to illness.

Schmitz recommends sticking to the schedule you’re used to through the hectic holiday season and even deliberately carving out more time for yourself. The better shape you’re in before you get on a plane, the better your chances are for avoiding a bug.

Get your shotsFlu season is at its peak over the holidays, so don’t get on the plane without being up-to-date on all of your essential vaccines.

Then there are the measles, which you absolutely do not want to get or spread.

“Right now, measles have been an issue both globally and nationally throughout the United States,” she says. “So it’s a good idea that people are up-to-date on their childhood vaccines, which would include the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, along with the annual flu vaccine.”

Drink water every step of the way

Suh says people are more dehydrated over the holidays. Couple that with an airplane’s dehydrating conditions and you’re looking at a parched body. You don’t necessarily need to chug gallons of water, but you should be more mindful of your intake.

“I don’t think you should overdo it, because then that could be problematic,” Suh says. “I think that the problem is people fall behind in their hydration. They forget about it. So try to maintain normal or slightly above-normal levels of hydration.”

Be well-rested before you catch your flightShould your holiday travel plans include early call times, plan to get enough good sleep beforehand. It may sound like common sense, but it becomes even more necessary when you’re hoping to ward off that cold everyone seems to have.

“Get adequate sleep,” says Schmitz, the nurse practitioner. “It’s so important to your overall health and immune system.”

Don’t go overboard on sanitation accessories

Although celebrities may go viral for taking in-flight sanitation to the extreme, Suh says antibacterial wipes and face masks offer only marginal benefits. She wouldn’t recommend wiping down common areas or your seat as a more potent solution than washing your hands. The same goes for wearing a face mask as a barrier against germs.

“You’re not getting the same levels of protection as simple hand-washing,” she says. “I don’t see much downside, except I can’t imagine it being very comfortable for the person who’s wearing the mask. But I’m unclear about how exactly how much benefit there would be.”

Traveling over the holidays can feel like a necessary evil, particularly when you’re surrounded by chaos, and that chaos seems to have a cold.

Among it all, keep calm and wash your hands.

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