Travelling the world exposes you to a lot of things, but one thing that many travellers don’t think about is the exposure to germs and viruses, or the simple steps they can take to keep themselves clean, germ free and healthy. Find out how to stay germ free and avoid getting sick when you travel with these easy hygiene tips.
The recent COVID19 pandemic has laid bare the fact that the majority of the population are woefully unprepared when it comes to basic hygiene when they travel. This is not a new problem, poor hygiene practices can spread a lot more than various coronavirus germs, travellers diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid and many more illnesses can be spread by backpackers and travellers simply not practicing good hygiene. You can hear more about some of the more common travel illnesses and ailments here:
Apart from the fact that there are many parts of the world where cleanliness and hygiene aren’t exactly up to best practice standards, just think for a moment how many surfaces you touch when travelling, that screen on the plane, the tray you eat your gassy, barely edible plane food from, the latch for the overhead bin, door handles, the hostel bed rail or the lift buttons in your hotel. Think how many people have touched them before you and remember that in many cases they probably haven’t been cleaned or sterilised, and a hell of a lot of people don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet!
That’s a hell of a disgusting thought, right? Well remember as well that many diseases such as cholera, shigella (bacillary dysentery), diarrhoea, cryptosporidium and many more can be passed either directly or indirectly via the faecal oral route. And yes, that is exactly what it sounds like. And remember that viruses including the new strain of Coronavirus, COVID 19, can live on average for 24 hours on many hard, nonporous flat surfaces like plastic.
So every time you touch a surface, shake a hand, hug someone, or even eat contaminated food or water, you are putting yourself at risk of becoming ill.
Not a nice thought, is it?
Please remember this is not meant to make you feel paranoid, you can still sit down at the most basic of street food stalls, you can still shake hands or hug someone and you don’t have to avoid people forever, just be a little more aware of your personal hygiene and potential infection routes.
This isn’t meant to creep you out or make you want to take a bath in disinfectant. I just want to remind all backpackers and travellers out there that so much of this can be avoided with basic common sense self hygiene procedures.
Seriously, all it takes is really common sense but thorough hygiene, and it really is not that hard. So how do you protect yourself from all these germs, viruses and bacteria and avoid getting sick when you travel?
The best way to reduce the risk of becoming infected with any virus, bacteria or germs is to be clean and hygienic yourself. I know this sounds like common sense but most people just don’t have the best standards. How many people lick their fingers when reading a book, touch dirty surfaces all day or don’t wash their hands after using the toilet or before handling food? I have spent some time on infectious disease units in my previous career and even in that environment we had to remind visitors about the absolute basics before they could even enter!
Seriously, if everyone was better at personal hygiene every single day COVID 19 would not have been declared a pandemic and we wouldn’t have a ‘flu season’ of Influenza every year.
So how do you maintain a strong personal hygiene regime?
Wash your hands.
It really can be this simple. Just wash your hands. Frequently, often, as much as you can and definitely after you have been to the loo or before you handle or eat food. Washing your hands is so important we even had a practical exam on it during my nursing degree! Seriously! If it is drilled into healthcare staff as the number one basic essential, that should tell you something!
Warm water and soap is best. There is no simpler way to put that. Use warm water and soap, wash your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds and make sure you scrub every surface, including fingernails, in between your fingers and the backs of your hands.
Let’s be honest about this though, when you are travelling it isn’t always practical to wash your hands frequently and you may not always have access to warm soap and water.
In these instances alcohol gel is a good stop gap. Alcohol gel does not clean dirty hands, nor is it a replacement for soap and water, but it is a simple stop gap measure that you can use in between washing your hands. For example after getting on the MRT and holding the rail, you can use alcohol gel straight after you get off and then you can wash your hands properly before you sit down to eat.
As a general rule of thumb if you have used your alcohol gel twice, it is time to wash your hands properly again.
Remember that to be effective any gel needs to be at least 60% alcohol at a bare minimum, and if you just use anti bacterial gel that isn’t always effective against viruses.
C’mon, I know backpackers have a reputation as stinky hippies but I really shouldn’t have to tell you this, right? Just get a wash you hobo!
Be aware of what you touch.
Stop sniggering at the back I don’t mean that! I mean one of the easiest ways germs are spread is by someone touching something that has been contaminated and then touching something else. So if you are going about your day, opening doors, shaking hands and doing any normal task, like everyone does all around the world every single day, just keep that in the back of your mind and be careful about touching your face or handling food after you have been touching all those things. Travellers can even make themselves ill by handling food with dirty hands, consuming it and then mistakenly thinking they have food poisoning.
Now remember, this doesn’t mean you have to be paranoid. You can still shake someones hand, you can still go about your daily life and open those doors or grab the hand rail on the metro, you can’t get through life without doing these things no matter how many people may try to now, just keep it in the back of your mind and wash your hands as soon as is reasonable.
Be socially aware.
What I mean by this is just be aware of your health in general and the fact that most people have a tendency to be filthy animals. Assume, without being paranoid of course, that anyone else has not washed their hands at all, and anything they touch, including your hands if they shake them, can potentially spread germs. You can still shake hands, you can still touch things, just keep this in the back of your mind.
It is also important to remember that you don’t have to avoid everyone and dive out of the way if they come within a mile of you. Everyone has got social distancing drilled into their minds and have become overly paranoid about it.
The general rule of thumb is a good metre at least is good practice if someone is coughing and spluttering all over the place, if they aren’t then the risk drops dramatically and assuming you aren’t in a huge crowd there is no need to worry if you pass by someone on the street or a waiter stands next to your table at a restaurant. Just use your common sense and practice a little bit of judgement.
Avoid anyone who has obvious symptoms of illness such as coughing or sneezing, or at least stay a good metre away from them if they are spluttering everywhere, and if you are ill yourself try not to travel if you can help it, avoid spreading your germs as much as possible and stay and rest in a private room somewhere for a bit, that will help stop the spread of your germs as well as make you feel better sooner.
Cleaning your environment.
This is often just as important as making sure you yourself are clean, but when you are travelling you don’t always have full control over your environment. It’s not like when you are at home and you can make sure every surface is clean and disinfected regularly. You may be in a really remote area that doesn’t have the best sanitation systems at the best of times, that hostel kitchen may be a breeding ground of bacteria and germs, and who knows what is on the back seat of that dirt cheap overnight bus.
This is why personal hygiene is so important, hand washing alone can deal with the majority of risk, but you can take steps to control at least some of your environment by simply keeping a pack of disinfectant wet wipes in your pack and wiping things down.
On the plane.
Aeroplanes are hotbeds of germs, and they are not cleaned as often as passengers think they are!
Basically speaking aircraft are only cleaned and disinfected thoroughly every month on average, or during a C Check, which is an airlines version of an MOT check every one to two years depending on how much they fly. Aircraft are also usually given a full clean every night, when they are usually grounded for a good few hours at least. This is where apart from the basic cleaning the galleys, trays, lavatories and more are given a lot more attention.
Usually however they are only given the most basic of tidy ups in between flights. The quicker the turnaround the less they are cleaned, this is especially true on budget airlines where turnaround times are often really tight.
So every time you get on a plane odds are it has not had a thorough clean, and you don’t know what germs are on the equipment you will be touching or who has used them before you. I have literally seen people place dirty nappies on the tray table before now so just think about that!
That is why when I board a plane I just spend a few minutes wiping down the screen, the armrests, the tray and the window compartment and button (if I am sat at the window). Then I use alcohol gel on my hands (because obviously getting up to wash them isn’t practical).
It takes a few minutes and I know my immediate environment is relatively clean.
By doing this, and assuming that no one else touches that envioronment but you and your neighbour doesn’t cough or sneeze all over the screen before you touch it, you have reduced any (already low) risk dramatically.
Eating street food at street stalls and food courts is an essential part of the backpacking experience and is in general terms very safe, not to mention delicious! But there are just a few things you can do to avoid becoming ill through contaminated food and water.
Unfortunately there is very little you can do about other peoples hygiene, but you can use your common sense to see if the street stall you want to buy food from is relatively hygienic or not. If the vendor is smoking and scratching his backside before handling your food run a mile, if they are visibly washing their hands or using disposable gloves in between customers, join the queue! The size of the queues themselves are also a very good indicator of who is good or not, as is seeing whether the meat they use is fresh. Meat that has been left out and exposed to the air for a long period of time such as a buffet or simply pre cooked meat, can start to build up a lot of nasty organisms that can give your stomach some serious problems. This is especially true for pre cooked sea food.
If you are at a food court or fast food place, especially if it is busy, then be aware of the table you are sitting at too. In my experience fast food courts, especially in Asia, tend to be pretty on the ball at having staff wipe them down with warm soap and water regularly, but if not then giving your table a quick wipe down yourself isn’t a bad idea.
Again, prevention is always the best part of the cure here. Good hand hygiene is essential – just as it is at home – and if you can’t wash your hands in warm soap and water just before you eat then at least use an alcohol gel.
Do not use untreated water from a tap or any other source if you are travelling in a country that doesn’t generally treat its water, and stick to bottled water instead. Filter bottles are also a great alternative if you want to save money and the environment by cutting down on plastic bottle waste.
It may be a little bit of overkill but it certainly doesn’t do any harm to consider the cutlery you are using when you eat out too. Generally a quick clean with an antiseptic wipe won’t do any harm, or if you want or need to be really careful carrying your own spork or chopsticks you clean yourself is a good idea too.
Be honest, how many of you clean your smartphone or even your laptop keyboard regularly? I don’t even want to think about what’s on that! But a quick wipedown with antiseptic wipes occasionally takes no time at all does it?
Remember, none of this is meant to make you paranoid about germs, but is just here as a reminder to make yourself more hygiene aware. There is no need to be obsessively cleaning every surface in a full hazmat suit or pushing people away with a 2 metre long stick if they get too close. Just keep good personal hygiene in the back of your mind as you travel and you will reduce your risk dramatically.
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