The holiday season is in full swing. In the United States, Thanksgiving 2023 set the record for the highest air travel day, with nearly 3 million screened travelers taking to the air the Wednesday before the holiday. Business travel is still ongoing, adding a layer of travelers to the landscape. While the COVID-19 pandemic may be formally over, there are several health concerns facing travelers at this time of the year, and some recommended precautions and practices to follow to stay healthy during holiday travel. 

Health Risks for Holiday Travel

In addition to routine concerns and cautions, business travelers should be aware of several acute issues. On the COVID-19 front, a new variant–BA.2.86–is spreading rapidly, tripling its share of overall COVID infections in a few weeks in November. This highly mutated variant does not appear to increase hospitalizations, but it does present some concern as overall COVID numbers are rising again.

Globally, respiratory illness is on the rise. While this is normal for the time of year, there are a few concerns for domestic and international travelers. Hospitals in China are seeing more patients with various forms of respiratory illness, some of which lack identification. Children seem to be the most affected. In the US, concurrent with the rise in COVID numbers are rising flu and RSV infection rates. These are potentially serious illnesses, and healthcare professionals anticipate a surge in reported infections after the Thanksgiving holiday. RSV and various forms of pneumonia seem to be incredibly prevalent in the northeastern United States at the time of this writing. 

“Walking pneumonia” in the form of mycoplasma pneumonia is especially prevalent this season, accounting for many cases of pediatric respiratory illness worldwide. Mycoplasma pneumoniae is the bacterial culprit behind this illness, which, while typically relatively mild, may lead to a severe infection requiring hospital treatment. While most media attention has focused on China, the disease is also causing further outbreaks in France, South Korea, India, and the US. 

Suggested Precautions for Holiday Travelers 

With these concerns in mind, travelers can follow several precautions and best practices to keep themselves as safe as possible during the holidays. Consult your physician for advice tailored to your needs, but some general guidelines for holiday travel include the following:

  • Know before you go. By staying abreast of the current health risks and the overall situation at your destination and in transit, you’ll be better able to make informed travel decisions and take appropriate steps to keep yourself safe. US State Department travel advisories are a good starting point for international travel. Tailored medical intelligence reports may better serve specific destinations.
  • Get vaccinated. There’s no substitute for having the appropriate vaccinations. While you should discuss the vaccinations you need with your doctor, many travelers will benefit from having current COVID, flu, and RSV vaccines
  • Stay home if you’re sick. If you start showing symptoms of infectious disease–sneezing, coughing, congestion, and fever, among others–it’s probably time to stay home rather than travel and risk spreading your illness further. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, particularly for those around you.
  • If you do get sick, get tested. Knowing what you have is the first step in dealing with it effectively, and you may be able to help healthcare workers and public health officials keep others safe as well. 

This can be a joyous time of the year, as well as a busy one. There’s much more to say about holiday safety. Still, by staying apprised of the situation, taking reasonable precautions, and ensuring that you have support during travel, you can limit risk and get the most out of your seasonal plans.