Photo of Shira



PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Belly Dancing Road Warrior's Health Secrets:
Part 3, Don't Catch a Cold!

by Shira



Table of Contents

This is Part 3 in a series of 5 articles on travel health issues for road warriors, particularly belly dancers. The other articles in the series cover:

Before you try any of the ideas I've suggested in this article, please discuss them with your own doctor! If you are pregnant or breast-feeding a baby, you need to consider how your actions might affect your baby's health. If you take prescription drugs for any reason, you'll want to make sure your jet lag remedies don't conflict with the behavior of those drugs. If you have allergies or immune system issues, you'll want to be careful to avoid any actions that could cause you further difficulty. I am not a health care professional, and I don't claim to know how my techniques for travel comfort might apply to your individual health issues.



Why Worry About Colds?

When most belly dancers think about getting sick on a dream vacation, they think of "the mummy's revenge", or traveler's diarrhea. There is another very real, very common health risk that many of us don't anticipate: the common cold.

  • It would be extremely annoying to be confined to your hotel room with a sniffly nose, head that feels like someone stuffed it full of cotton, or racking cough while everyone else is sightseeing, attending belly dance classes taught by leading instructors, or selling large amounts of merchandise.
  • Even if you stay healthy during the trip, you still risk coming down with a cold after you return home.
  • It is common to hear stories of people getting sick after Rakkasah and other large belly dance festivals, even if they live local to the event.

In this article, I'd like to explain why travelers face a high risk of catching a cold, offer suggestions for protecting yourself against this happening to you, and help you anticipate what you need to pack "just in case".

Admittedly, there are never any guarantees — it's possible that even if you do everything I recommend you could still get sick. But I find that my methods are usually successful for me. Even if I do come down with a cold when traveling, it's usually milder than most and passes more quickly.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.




The Most Important Preventive Measure

The most powerful thing we can do to stay healthy is to ensure we get plenty of sleep before, after, and during the trip.

  • Often, people preparing for trips stay up late several nights in a row to pack, wrap up pending projects for their jobs, or put their home life in order before leaving town.
  • By the time they board the airplane, many travelers are already exhausted from late nights and stress, making their immune systems vulnerable.
  • People who don't have much experience with travel should make a preparation checklist several weeks ahead of time: get passports, stop newspaper/mail delivery, arrange a pet-sitter, itemize things to pack, get visas (if needed), etc.
  • Entering the final days before travel with a sense of calm and control allows a person to sleep more comfortably and have more energy to face the upcoming adventure. Sufficient sleep and low stress levels are the best tools we can give our bodies to battle the cold viruses that we will be exposed to en route.
  • If the event lasts for a week or more, it should be a high priority to get plenty of sleep every night after arriving.
  • Trouble sleeping due to unfamiliar beds, noisy traffic outside the hotel, or partying hearty before bedtime can weaken the immune system. Part 2 in this series, Beating Jet Lag offers tips on how to overcome these obstacles to a good night's sleep.

It can be very tempting to belly dance late at night around a campfire, spend an entire night in Egypt at the Parisiana nightclub from midnight until 6:00 am watching Lucy's show, go to the after-party after a big belly dance festival, or embrace other opportunities to stay up late instead of sleeping. Of course, these activities are half the fun of attending belly dance events! But plan for them. If you know you'll be wanting to do one of these things, either try to spend some time napping earlier in the day, or sleep in the next day and skip some activities.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.




Bolstering the Immune System

If your doctor approves it, you may want to fortify your body before the trip with dietary supplements that help strengthen your immune system. The week before the trip, I like to take a daily multivitamin that delivers 100% recommended daily dose of vitamin C, vitamin E, copper, and other helpful nutrients. I continue taking this daily throughout the trip.

Some people like to take supplements containing echinacea and zinc, such as one called Airborne which contains Vitamin C, echinacea, zinc, and other nutrients. I tried it in the past, but found that I was able to stay healthy without it so I personally don't bother with it any more. If you should decide to use it, be aware that it's not advisable to take large doses of zinc any more than a couple of days in a row because zinc overdose creates its own health problems. Research these risks before deciding to try zinc, and talk to your doctor if you have any questions or doubts.

During the trip, be conscientious about eating a diet that is friendly to the immune system. Citrus fruit and other foods rich in vitamin C are helpful. If you are traveling to Egypt, try some of these delicious local beverages:

  • Lemon juice
  • Mango juice
  • Carcadet (rhymes with park-a-DAY), which is hibiscus tea. It can be served either iced, which is delicious in hot weather, or hot.

Even if you aren't worried about getting the vitamins required to stay healthy, these are great beverages to try while you're in Egypt simply because they are a delicious part of the local experience!

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by "K", Santa Clara, California.




Keeping Nasal Passages Moist

Airplane air or desert air in northern Africa can dry the nasal passages, which in turn reduces their ability to block germs from entering the body.

  • I take a bottle of sterile salt water solution with me on the airplane and place a few drops of it into my nose about once per hour to keep my mucous membranes moist.
  • I use a brand name called Ocean, but you could mix your own at home.
  • I take along a washcloth, which I periodically moisten with warm water and lay over my entire face. Breathing through it is soothing to my mouth and nose, and my skin appreciates the moisture.


Beware the Evil Airplane Pillow!

Did you know that airlines don't launder their pillows very often? Some claim to launder them weekly, others have admitted that they launder them at most once per month.

Think of the many passengers who may have used that pillow before you in the past week. Imagine these people resting the side of their face on this pillow as they cough and sneeze their way to their destination. Perhaps they even wiped their sniffly nose on the pillow itself. Imagine those germs lying in wait to pounce upon you!

This is why I don't allow airplane pillows to come close to my face. I don't mind using them on the armrest to make my arm more comfortable, but I take my own travel pillow to support my head and neck.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Lina Jang, New York City, New York.




Guarding Against Germs

Public places are enormous germ factories. Door handles, armrests on chairs, toilet flush handles, and public telephones are all covered in germs.

  • I take along either anti-bacterial hand wipes or a small bottle of anti-bacterial liquid, and use it frequently to cleanse my hands while traveling.
  • On airplane, I wipe my hands before I eat or drink anything, and after I use the washroom.

Some people like to use a tissue over the doorknob when leaving a bathroom in an airport, train station, or on board. I must admit I haven't done this, but I agree that it helps protect against exposure to bacteria and viruses that might make us sick.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.

While en route, and also after I reach my destination, I try to wash my hands before every meal. Hotels, airports, cabs, buses, trains, and restaurants all bring us into contact with masses of people, many of whom may be at the contagious phase of an illness.

  • Try to avoid fellow travelers who appear to be coughing and sneezing.
  • Some studies have shown that a passenger sitting five rows away from you on an airplane can spew enough germs into the air to put you at risk of catching the cold.
  • Look for ways to escape, even if it's simply to go stand in the galley or near the bathroom for a while.
  • Some people even take health masks on airplanes to put over their noses and mouths while traveling. It may look stupid, but it's better than being sick on your dream vacation!
  • Even at home, salad bars and buffets pose a risk of catching a cold. Other people may sneeze and cough on the food as they fill their plates, and leave germs from their hands on the serving utensils. While traveling, it may be advisable to proceed with caution when eating at salad bars and buffets.
  • It's safer to eat food that has been freshly placed on the counter, rather than that from a dish that is nearly empty.





Avoid Sick People

Your friend who came along on the same tour group as you may be fun to hang out with, but do you really want to sit next to hear on the tour bus if she comes down with a cold? That small child might be adorable, but do you really want to pick him up and hold him if he has a sniffly nose?

You can't always avoid being around someone who is sick. But when possible, try to put some distance between yourself and the person who is sniffling. Use some of the airplane-oriented precautions described above to protect yourself from germs if you must share a hotel room with a sick person or stand next to one in a belly dance workshop - avoid direct physical contact, use a tissue to touch surfaces such as a door handle that person may have touched, etc.


Connect Your Mind to Your Body

Medical researchers have long acknowledged the influence that the mind can have over the physical functions of the body. That's why researchers don't tell patients in clinical drug trials which they are receiving - the experimental treatment, or a placebo. Studies consistently show that some people receiving a placebo (sugar pill) report improvement as compared to the control group who received no treatment at all. In some cases, people's minds expect improvement, therefore it occurs.

Some people have learned how to consciously use this mind-body link to stay well. The first step is to train the mind to observe what the body is experiencing. Is the throat slightly scratchy? Is there a light sniffle? Do the sinuses feel tight? Maybe a slight headache? A helpful time to perform this mental self-examination is at bedtime, before falling asleep.

If symptoms are indeed beginning to appear, the first step is to make a commitment to yourself to perform all the physical safeguards described above, particularly making rest a priority and ensuring the diet includes nutritious foods that support immune system health. Only after seeing to the physical needs should you then turn your attention to using psychological techniques. If you are the kind of person who finds visualizations and affirmations helpful, invite your body to generate cravings for whatever foods contain the nutrition you need to stay healthy, and promise your body that you will listen to those cravings. Another visualization might be to imagine the white blood cells in your immune system as being an army of Bugs Bunnies, while the cold germs are carrots being munched by those bunnies.


It is important at this phase to view yourself as a healthy person with a strong immune system capable of keeping you healthy. If you find yourself thinking, "Oh no, I'm catching a cold, oh crap, I don't want my trip spoiled by getting sick," then you will almost certainly succumb to it. But if you lead your thoughts in the direction of, "Aha, I see a cold is trying to invade my system! Well, I'm so healthy that I'll just fight it off! I know I'll feel great when I wake up in the morning," then you improve your chances of indeed feeling better the next morning. Self-fulfilling prophecies can be a powerful psychological tool, and with practice it can be possible to train yourself to use them to your advantage. Of course, it would be wise to sleep in the next morning to give your body as much rest as it wants to win the battle over the virus.

Remember that pyschology alone won't protect you from getting sick. You need to take care of your body with rest, nutrition, and germ avoidance. Much of the success of the mind/body connection is simply observing subtle changes in your body early enough to respond with the care and rest it needs. It's amazing how much self-healing we can do if we simply pay attention to patterns and take action. The affirmations, visualizations, and inner dialogue can tip the scale in your favor if you are on the borderline, but they can't "fix" neglect and abuse.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.




Just In Case....

When packing, include your favorite supplies for battling illness. Even if you follow every word of advice I have written above, you may still catch a cold!


The Most Effective Treatments

We've heard it many times - if we do catch a cold, we should get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids. There's a reason why doctors tell us to do these things. They help support the immune system as it battles the cold virus. Refer back to my advice in Part 2 of this series, Beating Jet Lag, on promoting sleep and dealing with dehydration — those techniques help with recovering from colds as well as with preventing them.


Don't Expect to Find It There

It's never fun to explore an unfamiliar city in search of a drugstore when you're feeling miserable with an illness, and if you're traveling to another country there's not even any guarantee you'll be able to find your favorite products there. For example, tissues for blowing your nose in Germany tend to be sturdier and stiffer than those sold in the United States. When you're blowing your nose every five minutes, you want to use a product that feels comfortable and familiar to you.

Similarly, Americans are accustomed to seeing many shelves of assorted cough syrups and lozenges in drugstores, whereas in a country such as Egypt there might be only two or three choices.

So, pack whatever products you normally use to feel more comfortable when you catch a cold. Whether these are herbal remedies or items from the drugstore, you'll be grateful to have them if a cold indeed catches you in its vicious grip.

Local Sources of Comfort

Depending on where you're traveling, there may be different local beverages, food, or other home remedies. If you go to Egypt, try the fruit juices rich in Vitamin C that were mentioned above under "Bolstering the Immune System."

If you have a scratchy throat or a cough, you may find the local anise tea (which the locals call "yansoun", rhymes with "monsoon") soothing as well as delicious. In Egypt, many singers drink yansoun before their performances because they believe it is beneficial for throat health.


About Antibiotics

Antibiotics are not useful against a typical cold. This is because a cold is caused by a virus, and antibiotics work only against bacteria, not viruses. There's really no need to take along antibiotic for fighting a cold unless your colds frequently develop into strep throat, bronchitis, sinus infection, or other bacterial follow-on illnesses. If you have a history of bacterial infections following your colds, you should ask your doctor before you leave home for advice on how best to manage your risks, recognize an infection if it progresses to that, and treat the infection. S/he may decide to give you a prescription for antibiotic just in case you might need it. Because I don't have a history of bacterial infections after my colds, I don't bother with antibiotic for this purpose myself.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by André Elbing, Bärbroich, Germany, at one of Shira's performances in Egypt.


If your doctor does give you a prescription, ask your pharmacist whether there are any issues you should be aware of when taking it. A drug may have unpleasant side effects, or interact with a different medication you may also be taking. For example, some antibiotics can make your skin sunburn more easily, and most cause diarrhea. Imodium, which many people use as a remedy for traveler's diarrhea, has a warning on its package saying you should consult your doctor before taking it in connection with an antibiotic. Most pharmacies will offer a consultation when customers pick up their drugs - it's valuable to take advantage of this opportunity, and ask questions. In addition to consulting with the pharmacist, it's advisable to also read the package information regarding side effects and drug interactions for yourself.

Don't actually use the antibiotics prescribed by your doctor unless you indeed see signs that your cold has developed into a bacterial infection, because overusing antibiotic can cause other health problems. With antibiotics, it is important to follow the instructions exactly. Typically, antibiotic doses need to be taken a certain number of hours apart, and they need to be continued until completely used up even if the symptoms disappear. These instructions exist for a reason and should always be followed.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Kaylyn Hoskins, Solon, Iowa.




Returning Home

When it's time to return home, take the same precautions against germs as you did when you first began your trip. It would be annoying to get sick just when you are trying to get back to your normal routine.

Traveling dancers often exhaust themselves with sightseeing, dance classes, vending, and staying up late to watch shows or attend parties. Try to make some down time for yourself during the final day or two of your trip, to get some rest and fortify your immune system.



Packing Checklist

To help you plan ahead for your trip and pack, here is a checklist summarizing the items I described in this article. These are just ideas - use the ones that are compatible with your own approach to health care, and ignore the rest. For example, I never use a decongestant but I include it on the checklist below because I know other people do.

As always, discuss any pills or syrups you may be considering with your health care professional before using them.


Preventive Items

I recommend taking most of these on the airplane in the carry-on luggage and using them during the flight.

  • Everything recommended in my article about jet lag for better sleep
  • Everything recommended in my article about jet lag for avoiding dehydration
  • Dietary supplements (I use Airborne) for bolstering the immune system en route
  • Your own travel pillow
  • Antibacterial wipes
  • Tissues for handling washroom doors
  • Health mask to wear over nose and mouth
  • Immersion heater
  • Herbal tea that contributes to immune system health (echinacea, green tea, hibiscus, rose hips)
  • Styrofoam cup for brewing tea
  • Snacks rich in vitamin C or other nutrients that help the immune system, such as certain dried fruits
To Soothe a Runny or Stuffy Nose
  • Tissues for blowing your nose. Lots of tissues!
  • Menthol rub, frankincense essential oil, or eucalyptus bath oil to ease breathing
  • Moisturizer to soothe skin under the nose rubbed raw by blowing the nose frequently
  • Antihistamine
  • Decongestant
  • Sterile salt water solution to spray into nose to moisten dried mucous membranes
To Soothe Other Symptoms
  • Zinc lozenges, but be careful not to take them for too many days in a row
  • Lozenges designed to deaden the pain of a sore throat
  • Something to ease a sinus headache
  • Cough syrup
  • Asthma inhaler in case the cold worsens asthma symptoms
  • Herbal teas designed to ease coughs or sore throat
  • Antibiotic if you have a history of your colds being immediately followed by bacterial infections such as strep throat, bronchitis, or sinus infection.



Related Articles

These articles cover other health-related topics related to belly dance.




This article originally was published on the Gilded Serpent, an online web-zine serving the belly dance community. It appeared there in late spring 2005.



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