Travel Tribulations: How to deal with vacation constipation, swelling and other health issues

Stress, jet lag, cramped airplane seats, new foods and exhaustion all conspire to test your physical limits. Globe Aware volunteers can avoid these travel symptoms by following these helpful tips!

How to deal with vacation constipation, swelling and other travel symptoms

A. Pawlowski
July 2, 2021

Travel can do wonders for the soul. It can also do a number on your body.

The very word originates from “travail,” or “painful or laborious effort,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Painful, indeed, as stress, jet lag, cramped airplane seats, new foods and exhaustion all conspire to test your physical limits.

Almost 48 million Americans are expected to travel during the 2021 Fourth of July holiday period — from Thursday through Monday — the second most traveled Independence Day holiday weekend since AAA began tracking the numbers. This represents a near return to pre-pandemic levels and an increase of almost 40% compared to 2020, the organization said.

Here are common symptoms you may experience while traveling this summer and tips to stay healthy during your journey:

1. Vacation constipation

You may notice your bathroom habits change quite a bit once you hit the road. When a regular routine suddenly becomes anything but, it can cause discomfort and concern.

“Many people experience constipation when they travel,” said NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar.

There are several possible reasons why.

Eating habits: You may be eating less fiber and drinking less water, all of which contributes to travel constipation, Azar noted. Try to stay well hydrated and eat lots of fruits and vegetables.

Disruption of your daily routine: Maybe you’re waking up later or skipping a favorite workout. Try to re-establish your everyday rhythm, she advised. If you’re used to having a bowel movement in the morning, try and recreate the setting for that to happen with a similar meal or exercise routine you would normally have at home.

Jet lag: When zipping through time zones turns night into morning and morning into night, it will take a few days to get your system back on track.

“Safe toilet syndrome:” Psychology plays a role, too. Your body has to relax to go to the bathroom, but that’s hard when you’re in a new, unfamiliar environment, causing irregularity when you’re away from home, Dr. Mehmet Oz told Then, there’s “shy bowel” syndrome, or the fear of going to the bathroom when other people are nearby. Public restrooms on planes, in airports and hotels may cause some travelers to “hold it in,” further disrupting their routine.

2. Menstrual cycle changes

Many women find a trip abroad will delay or shorten their period, or even cause them to skip a cycle, so don’t be surprised if the timing is a little unusual.

The menstrual cycle is controlled by the coordinated secretion of different hormones, which can be affected by changes in your circadian rhythm, or your internal body clock, Azar said. Jet lag really messes with your body, including the reproductive system.

“In other words, a shift in your body clock can cause a change in reproductive hormones that affect ovulation and menstruation,” she noted.

“Keep this in mind when you travel if you are NOT planning a pregnancy!”

3. Swollen legs, feet or hands

This is particularly common with air travel, or any other mode of transportation that forces you to sit still for long periods of time. Our bodies are designed to move to help blood flow, so when you stop moving during a long flight, your blood tends to pool in your legs.

“Our calf muscles are a very efficient pump for squeezing the veins and pushing blood back to our heart,” said Dr. Gregory Piazza, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“When we’re sedentary, we lose that calf muscle pump.”

That may put some travelers at risk for deep vein thrombosis, or a blood clot that forms in a vein in your leg. If it breaks loose, it can travel into the heart and lungs and cause a pulmonary embolism, a dangerous condition that could be deadly.

Developing DVT could affect people hours and days after a flight, Piazza said. Watch for symptoms like cramping or some other discomfort in the leg, redness or purple discoloration, swelling or difficulty walking.

To keep your blood moving, he suggested the following tips:

  • If you’ve had blood clots before, consider wearing compression stockings.
  • Drink enough non-alcoholic fluids so that you have to urinate once an hour on the plane.
  • Get up and walk at least once an hour, which should already be happening if you’re drinking enough fluids and have to get up to go to the lavatory.
  • Try calf exercises and foot pumps to help enhance the calf muscle pump action.

Dehydration and diet indiscretions during your trip can also lead to swelling, Azar noted. Lay off the salt in your meals and drink plenty of fluids.

4. Skin breakouts

Your flawless complexion suddenly sports blemishes and bumps as you explore a new destination.

“I hear that all the time from people,” said Dr. Carolyn Jacob, founder and medical director of Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology.

Jacob suspects it happens because travel is stressful to your system or because you may be eating differently than at home.

Dr. Julie Karen, a board certified dermatologist in New York, believes a lot of the changes are environmental.

“There’s increased pollution for certain cities and that can accumulate on the skin and lead to further inflammation and pimples,” she said.

You may also be using different products than you’re used to — a hotel-supplied moisturizer or soap, for example — which may affect your skin differently, both experts said. Or you skip your usual cleansing routine.

Traveling with face wipes is a good idea. Don’t forget to drink lots of water on planes, where the environment is dry. And consider packing one more item in your bag: your own pillow case.

“The pillow case you come into contact with (in a hotel) may not be as clean or cleaned in the same way as yours at home,” Karen said.

Happy, healthy travels.


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