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Drs. Oz & Roizen: Well-Traveled

Q: Can Airborne and similar products keep me from catching other passengers’ illnesses on a plane?

A: Airborne, a supplement containing vitamins, minerals and herbs, hit the market in the late 1990s, claiming it could prevent and treat colds, but there’s little evidence it does so. In fact, a 2006 ABC News/Good Morning America investigation revealed the company based its claims of cold prevention on research that didn’t meet scientific standards by a long shot. After watchdog groups and the Federal Trade Commission questioned the claims, Airborne was forced to provide refunds to customers and change its packaging—it now says its product simply boosts the immune system. While there’s some evidence the new ingredients (vitamin C, echinacea, amino acids and zinc) affect immune responses, we could find no randomized independent data that this combo helps your immune system combat or prevent colds or cancer or does anything beneficial for you or your immune system. And data show excesses of some may actually  harm.

Here’s a better strategy: Turn off your air vent, which just recirculates germs. Simply washing your hands is very effective for keeping germs at bay, because some are transmitted through touch (you handle a magazine someone has sneezed on, for example, and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth). Wipe down your seat and tray table with alcohol wipes—alcohol kills cold and flu viruses on contact. And get your flu shot—it’s not 100 percent effective, but it guards against three or four strains of seasonal flu viruses. Finally, because sleep and nutrition are important for immune function, get ample ZZZs and skip junk food before you fly.

Q: I’m driving to my in-laws’ home for Thanksgiving. I know not to text and drive, but what about using a hands-free cellphone or a voice-activated device for texts and emails while I drive?

A: All those things distract you. Driving while distracted is a big mistake and a common one for rookies—new drivers like your teenager are most likely to do it by texting or fiddling with her iPod. You warn her about it and pray. She should do the same for you if you’re doing anything except driving.

It’s a flat-out misconception that hands-free cellphones or voice-activated devices are safe. A study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety tested different actions that require your brain to multitask while you drive. The mildest distraction: the good old-fashioned radio, followed by audiobooks. Hands-free cellphones were next, followed by a passenger conversation and then handheld cellphones. Most distracting? You guessed it: speech-to-text systems in which you talk to your phone to create a text or email. Participants using a Siri-like system had the slowest brake reaction times and head and eye movements.

Really strong data indicate talking on the cellphone is the equivalent of driving drunk—and being under the influence of alcohol is the leading cause of accidents. Recent research indicates that your brain on a phone call functions like your brain with a .08 percent level of blood alcohol.

To ensure you arrive at your relatives’ T-day table safe and sound, turn on the radio or pop in an audiobook; keep your eyes and attention on the road; make calls and send texts at rest stops along the way.

Q: One word: bedbugs. How do I avoid them at hotels?

A: First the good news: Unless you are allergic to them (which is rare but can be very dangerous; call 911 if your breathing becomes labored) or scratch the itchy bites enough to infect them, bedbugs are not Public Enemy No. 1. They do little physical harm and don’t spread disease.

Now the not-so-good news: The flat, brownish insects are small enough to squeeze into an opening the size of a pencil point—adults are about the size of an apple seed (nymphs are smaller)—so they can hide easily. And adult bedbugs can live for a year without a meal, the meal being your blood. How do you know if you’ve been bitten? You may not realize it until the next day, because the bugs inject a local anesthetic into your skin so you don’t feel the bite or itch immediately. The bites can develop into big, itchy welts that occur in little groups. With an allergic reaction, bite marks can be enlarged and painfully swollen, and on rare occasions anaphylaxis can occur, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seek medical attention for these symptoms.

The nocturnal bloodsuckers have made a comeback since the Environmental Protection Agency banned many pesticides once used to kill them, including DDT. So you are more likely now than, say, 10 years ago, to encounter them in a hotel. And you can bring them home on luggage and clothes. Before you book a room, check for problems at BedbugRegistry.com, a database of sightings submitted by the public. For additional tips to help you avoid bringing home this unwanted souvenir, go to SUCCESS.com/Bedbugs.

Q: I always worry about getting sick when traveling and far from my trusted doctors. How can I receive good medical care if I get food poisoning, run a fever or break a bone?

A: First, never leave home without your doctors’ phone numbers, your health insurance card and your medical records. Keep your card and doctors’ numbers in your wallet, and be sure your doctors have your medical records available via the Internet. You should also have the passwords to your medical info in your wallet so another person can access your information in an emergency. (Yes, you’ll have to change passwords if your wallet is stolen, but if someone can access your medical records, you are well on the way to better care.)

For less serious conditions, you can go to an urgent-care center or retail store clinic. Urgent-care centers (FindUrgentCare.com) are usually staffed by doctors who treat patients on a walk-in basis for non-life-threatening conditions such as ankle sprains, respiratory illnesses or cuts. Many insurance plans partially cover visits—and even if yours doesn’t, it will probably be cheaper than a visit to the local ER. Retail store clinics, also called convenient-care clinics (CCaClinics.org) are affiliated with retail stores like CVS and are staffed with nurse practitioners or physician assistants who can treat rashes, sore throats, earaches and such. Of course, in an emergency, call 911 immediately.

Q: I have a tough time sleeping when I’m on the road in an unfamiliar bed and dealing with a time zone change. Would a pill like Ambien help? What about melatonin?

A: We suggest skipping the pills and instead exercising as soon as you hit the ground; use your hotel gym or take a brisk walk or jog. Physical exertion helps you get shut-eye. If you are staying more than one day, set your body’s internal clock to the local time by getting out in the sun or under bright white or blue lights, which causes the brain to produce hormones that keep us awake and delays the release of hormones that tell our bodies to get sleepy.

If this doesn’t help, you can try melatonin, a hormone that our bodies naturally make and that helps control sleep-wake cycles. Take a supplement that supplies 1 to 3 mg of melatonin two hours before you plan to go to bed (or eat six walnuts, which contain melatonin).

Ambien and other prescription sleep aids have been associated with impaired driving the next day, even if you feel fully awake—and even with reduced dosages. The Food and Drug Administration has recommended female patients cut dosages in half. It takes their bodies longer to rid the medicine from their systems. Men may want to do the same.

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