Three kids swim underwater with fish.
Before you hit the beach or ski slopes, make your vacation foolproof. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Whether your family’s travel plans include some fun in the sun, makin’ a splash or skiing the slopes, nothing puts the damper on a vacation faster than illness or injury.

There are several things you can do before, during and after your travels to make your experience a memorable one. For all the right reasons.

1. Think like a Boy Scout

Travel itself is stressful. And breaks can be a particularly crazy and frustrating time, especially if you’re traveling with kids.

“The most important advice I give to my patients is be prepared. That, and remember to pack your common sense,” said Philip Henderson, MD, division chief of internal medicine and pediatrics at Spectrum Health. “People on vacation tend to do things they’d never do at home, which can lead to trouble. You’ll be able to deal with the unexpected and avoid a lot of stress by being well-prepared and using your head.”

2. Give yourself a boost

A healthy immune system before you leave can lessen the chance of downtime due to illness on your vacation and when you get back home. So, before you even think about what to pack, give your immune system a boost: get plenty of rest, eat right and stick to your normal exercise routine.

Make sure you and your kids are up to date on all your vaccinations, including your flu shot, Dr. Henderson said. Take this quiz to find out which vaccines you or your children age 11 years and older may need, and be sure to get them a couple weeks before you travel.

If you’re traveling outside the continental U.S., check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization for recommendations on additional vaccinations and other travel health precautions.

3. Mind your medications

Pack enough of your prescription medications in your carry-on luggage to last the entire trip—and a little extra in case your return trip is delayed. Bring a list of the brand and generic names of all your medications, including the dosage and frequency, in case you need to get a refill during your trip.

Bring both your standard, everyday medications, as well as any emergency medications you might need. This may include an EpiPen if you have a severe allergy or an inhaler if you’re prone to asthma attacks.

Take a basic medical kit with you. Dr. Henderson suggested:

  • Band-Aids
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Aspirin or Tylenol
  • Aloe gel (for sunburn)
  • Antacids such as Tums (for upset stomach)
  • Pepto-Bismol tablets (for traveler’s diarrhea)

“Be sure you get the real Pepto-Bismol,” Dr. Henderson said. “Look for bismuth subsalicylate as the key ingredient for it to really work.”

If you take certain medications, or have chronic health conditions such as diabetes or epilepsy, carry an alert notification or identification card with you.

“This is especially important for people who take a blood thinner,” Dr. Henderson said. “If you’re in an accident or are unconscious, emergency medical personnel need to be aware in order to properly treat you.”

4. Going airborne

Given the lengthy time spent in crowded planes, air travelers are often concerned about catching an illness from other passengers. In addition to what’s floating around in the air, studies have shown that illness-causing bacteria can survive on surfaces inside airplanes for days or even up to a week.

So how can you stay safe and healthy on the airplane?

  • Clean your hands thoroughly and often. Travel with a small bottle of hand sanitizer. Use it once you are settled in your seat and again after you depart the plane.
  • Don a mask that covers you from nose to chin. Wearing one is currently required in airports and in airplanes to slow the spread of COVID-19.
  • Bring your own pillow and blanket instead of using those handed out by the airline.
  • Drink lots of water and nonalcoholic, decaffeinated beverages to stay hydrated. The air in airplanes is dry so it’s easy to become dehydrated.
  • Stretch your legs. Even healthy people can get blood clots in their legs after long flights. When allowed, walk up and down the aisles and stretch your calf muscles while you’re sitting.

Remember, the risk of infection doesn’t end when you get off the airplane.

Cruise ships and busy resorts can also expose you to some nasty infections. Norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea, is known to plague these vacation escapes.

Scrupulous hygiene is the key to avoiding these highly contagious bugs. Wash your hands after every trip to the bathroom and before every meal. Soap and water is best, or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.

5. Avoid traveler’s stomach

Changes in diet can wreak havoc on your digestive system. While a slice of pizza or a burger might be tempting while waiting for your flight, eat a salad or something rich in fiber to avoid stomach problems later.

Once you arrive, try to eat as much like your normal diet as possible. Go ahead and have some treats. It’s your vacation, after all. But make sure the majority of your meals contain vegetables, fruit, lean protein and whole grains. Drink plenty of water, too.

If you know you have a sensitive stomach, take one Pepto-Bismol tablet each day to prevent traveler’s diarrhea, Dr. Henderson suggested.

And a final word of caution on food safety: If food left out on a buffet table looks wilted or dry around the edges, it’s probably best to stay away.

6. Drink up

Water, water, water. Staying well hydrated is important.

“People don’t realize how much water they lose when they sweat,” Dr. Henderson said. “And when your body is dehydrated, you feel lousy. Dehydration affects your metabolism, your circulation, and causes headaches and dizziness.”

One way to tell if you’re drinking enough water is to look at your urine. If you’re going at least four times a day and it’s relatively clear in color, you’re in the clear. If it’s dark in color, you’re dehydrated and need to drink more water.

If drinking alcohol is part of your break, remember that it can impair your judgment and actions.

Binge drinking, in particular, can be a problem on vacation. It’s the most common pattern of excessive alcohol use, defined for men as consuming five or more drinks, and women consuming four or more drinks, in about two hours.

7. Beware the buzz

Educate yourself about the local bugs and reptiles, especially if you’re traveling off the beaten path, Dr. Henderson said. Know which are poisonous and which are not.

Mosquitoes carrying dengue fever, Zika virus and chikungunya virus, once found only in Africa and Asia, have been found in Florida, Hawaii, the Caribbean, South America and Central America.

To avoid bites, stay inside or in screened-in areas or cover up during peak mosquito hours–sunrise and sunset, and in early evening. Also avoid tight clothes, dark colors and perfume. Natural repellents with 20 percent picaridin, or deet-based products with 30 percent deet or less, also work well.

Women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant may want to avoid places where there is active Zika transmission, noted Vivian Romero, MD, a maternal fetal medicine specialist with Spectrum Health Medical Group.

“Decisions about pregnancy planning are personal,” Dr. Romero said, suggesting that those who are considering becoming pregnant use condoms and put off conception for up to six months after returning from a visit to a Zika-confirmed area. “We recommend talking with your health care provider if you’re not yet pregnant, but thinking about having a baby in the near future.”

8. Soak it up. Safely.

It’s tempting to soak up the rays by staying in the hot sun all day. Although getting a little sun can have some health benefits (think vitamin D boost), the sun’s ultraviolet rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes.

“Terrible sunburns are by far the most common thing we see in people returning from vacations,” Dr. Henderson said. “Be sure to apply sunscreen to the top of your feet. That’s one spot where we see the worst burns. The other is on the top of the head for men who are bald or have thinning hair.”

This also applies to those enjoying ski trips—that powdery white snow reflects the sun’s rays and can burn you to a crisp if you aren’t careful.

Always practice sun safety: wear a hat, protect your eyes with wraparound sunglasses that provide 100 percent UV ray protection, and for sunscreen, use one with a SPF double what you’d normally use at home, said Dr. Henderson.

9. Home sweet home

Once you’re home, pay attention to how you feel. While it’s normal to feel a little rough around the edges after traveling for a day or two, if you feel worse each day rather than better, see your doctor.