How to avoid a holiday illness – Professor Montgomery explains four easy steps

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Chloe Gray
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Holiday sickness isn’t something that professional jet setter Naomi Campbell stands for - and she believes the secret to staying healthy post-flight lies in a packet of Dettol wipes. But how do we actually avoid the sick joke that is snotty noses, dodgey tummies or gross infections when away? 

In a post on her YouTube channel, Campbell wears a face mask, disposable gloves and Burberry pyjamas (of course) while she wipes down the seat, the tray and everything else in her way before she relaxes into her on-flight seat. Excessive? Maybe. But, we can see where Campbell is coming from: whenever we take a trip away we seem to end up feeling worse for wear.  

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Sometimes it’s just the sniffles that our body has been fighting off for weeks coming out, and other times it’s more sinister bugs that leave us hotel bed (or toilet) bound. “Immune function, and even wound healing, are suppressed by stress and fatigue- the state we are usually in by the time a holiday comes,” Professor Hugh Montgomery, from University College London’s Intensive Care Medicine department, explains. 

But our annual leave is precious time that we shouldn’t be wasting feeling sick. And the time post-holiday is when we need to be switched on to play catch up - nobody has time for sickness. So here’s why it happens, and what you can do to enjoy your holiday to the full.  

Plane detox

Campbell’s in-flight sanitation might not be misjudged, as a 2015 study found that the tray table is the dirtiest on the plane with 2,155 colony-forming units per square inch. But, let’s put that in perspective: the average desktop harbors 20,961 germs per square inch, and if you’re in a city, buses, trains and tubes that we sit on everyday will face high germ levels, too. So, when we asked Professor Montgomery if it’s necessary to disinfect, he said no. Obviously, we don’t recommend that you eat your dinner straight off the tray table, but your usual hygiene steps should keep you healthy. 

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Your biggest worry about getting sick post flight is other people. “Holidays can mean mass transport and exposure to people in droves in transit and hotels,” says Professor Montgomery. “Disease patterns in travellers are different, for example when it’s summer in the UK, it’s winter in Australia where viruses are prevalent.”

And, if you fly economy, you’re probably more likely to pick up the germs as being squished in with passenger’s means infection is more likely, just like on the ground. However, the well-shared rumour that re-circulated air is the reason germs spread may not be true as plane filters decontaminate the air before it’s pushed back in the cabin.

Another study blames low humidity for post-flight sickness. Apparently the dry air interrupts our mucociliary clearance system, which consists of a thin layer of mucus and tiny hairs in the nose that usually trap viruses and bacteria. With this system down, the germs can get into your lungs better.

How do you avoid it? You don’t need to go full Campbell face mask, but drinking lots of water to fight back against the low humidity. Nose sprays, usually with saline in, are also thought to work well at killing the germs in your nose that the missing MCS don’t catch. 

Eating, drinking and tummy bugs

Growing up, it was commonplace to assume you couldn’t drink the tap water abroad. So we spent our holidays buying bottles of water from the local corner shop. In today’s climate crisis, that just isn’t feesible. 

Luckily it’s 2019 and, according to TravelHealthPro, commissioned by Public Health England, standards of hygiene have improved in areas, and the incidence rates of travellers’ diarrhoea and other diseases transmitted by contaminated food and water have reduced as a result. So where you were once warned off of Spanish tap water, the likelihood is that British water is no better – but always check. 

The NHS recommends avoiding tap water “in countries with poor sanitation”, which you can find on TravelHealthPro. A great option for eco-friendly travelers is the Contiki water bottle, that filters 99.5% of bacteria out of water so you don’t need to rely on plastic to get you through your holiday. 


“There is an idea that malaria isn’t so bad and is easy to cure. Not so,” warns Professor Montgomery. “I have seen deaths in the UK from returning travellers.” Let that be your reminder to check the NHS Destinations site to see if you need to be aware of the disease and get your tablets before you travel. Mosquito repellent is obviously handy, but not enough of a precaution. 

While we’re talking about visiting your GP, check whether you need any vaccinations or boosters before travelling anywhere where infection and disease is a high risk. The NHS recommends getting them done at least eight weeks before you travel as some vaccines need time to allow your body to develop immunity, and others involve a number of doses spread over several weeks or months. If you’re due to travel sooner and are only just thinking about it, speak with your doctor. They’ll usually recommend getting them anyway. 

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“Have insurance!” says Professor Montgomery. “Without it, you can’t be sure of the best care, that you can afford [health treatments], or that you can be flown home.” Even if you’re holidaying within the EU which (for now) let’s us use our EHIC cards to cover healthcare costs, it’s still essential. 

Image: Unsplash


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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).