Washing hands with soap under running water.

Getting sick over the winter holidays is common—and potentially dangerous—for a couple of reasons. First, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year's come smack in the middle of cold and flu season.

And with so many people traveling, it’s easy for the germs to get passed around.

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"There is the emotional stress many of us feel, and there is the shaking up of our routine. We may be less likely to sleep enough and may not eat as well; we may not drink enough water and get dehydrated," says Ana María López, M.D., M.P.H., president of the American College of Physicians (ACP). "All of these factors can impact the immune system."

Falling ill when you’re away from home also poses special challenges, in part because you may not have access to your regular doctor or pharmacy.

Here, the steps that will help you avoid holiday health problems, and what to do in case you do get sick.  

Don't Forget Your Medications

In the hubbub of packing gifts and food for holiday travels, it’s easy to leave your prescription medications behind.

So double-check to make sure that you have packed your medications and that you have enough to make it through your travels, plus a little extra.

If you’re flying, keep your medications with you instead of in your checked bags. "Do not risk losing your bag and being without your medicines," says López.

Be sure to bring along a list of your meds and the dosage and prescribing doctor for each, a copy of your prescriptions, and a doctor’s note if you carry needles or syringes. 


Go to Consumer Reports’ 2018 Holiday Central for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more.
 

Download Your Health Records

If your doctor has a patient portal, you can access portions of your medical record, such as a list of your medications and allergies, online.

Consider printing out key portions or downloading the record to a thumb drive if you will be without computer access during the holidays. This way, you can give doctors the information instantly in case of an emergency.

It's also smart to bring along an updated list with the names and contact information for your doctors, pharmacy, and other key members of your healthcare team, says López.  

Check Your Insurance Coverage

Emergencies such as broken bones or heart attacks are usually covered outside of your network or area, but doctor visits may not be. So check your health insurance policy ahead of time, and make sure you bring your insurance card with you.

Consider making a paper copy and bringing that as well; it may be helpful if you lose your insurance card while traveling.

Outsmart Germs

Infections such as colds and flu spread easily where people congregate—shopping malls, holiday parties, theaters, family dinners.

"Since we may be out in crowds touching door handles, money, banisters, we may more easily be exposed," says López. "Plus, if you're traveling, you may be exposed to others who are ill while being in a closed-in space."

So practice scrupulous hygiene throughout the holiday season. Your best defense is to wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds frequently throughout the day, especially before you eat and after using the bathroom.

If soap and water aren’t available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Don’t bother with antibacterial soaps. They don’t work better than regular soap and may contribute to antibacterial resistance.

In addition, keep your hands away from your face to avoid transmitting any germs you've picked up to your eyes, nose, or mouth.

Take Symptoms Seriously

Fatal heart attacks spike during the holidays, in part because people on vacation often delay getting care. (Some research has also shown that a huge meal can significantly increase the risk of same-day heart attacks, and that dips in the temperature may play a role.)

If you think you’re having a heart attack, a stroke, or any other serious health problem, get to an emergency room right away.

Know Where to Go If You Get Sick

In a nonemergency situation, your regular doctor or private group health insurer may be able to help you find a doctor near the area you're visiting. Hotels, for instance, may have a physician on retainer who can see patients in their rooms.

You might also consider a retail health clinic or urgent-care center. Walk-in health clinics, which are usually housed in pharmacies, big-box stores, and even supermarkets, are fine for ailments that are bothersome but not life-threatening. That includes bronchitis, ear infections, minor sprains, a sore throat, and urinary tract infections.

Urgent-care centers, which are typically owned by a hospital or group of doctors, can handle problems that are more serious but don’t always warrant a trip to an ER, such as a fracture or a cut that may need stitches.  

In all of these cases, check with your insurer first, and ask for a copy of your records from any doctor's visit afterward to share with your physicians back home.