How to have a safe and stress-free vacation

Packing your bags to jet off for a year-end vacation? The holiday season promises plenty of fun.

But not if you hurt yourself while skiing, strain your feet due to improper footwear or suffer throbbing aches after long hours of driving on a road trip.

A double whammy of travel stress and jetlag can also wear you out, mentally and physically.

Such travel health hazards can sour your long-anticipated vacation. But they can be avoided.

Mind & Body has put together a handy guide on smart ways to sidestep health and safety issues while travelling abroad.


The kids have been kicking up a fuss all day. The hotel gave your room to someone else by mistake. The airline lost your luggage.

Such incidents can unleash a wave of intense stress even before you begin your holiday .

But it is important to cope with travel hiccups as stress can have a physical impact, such as weakening the immune system. This will make the person more prone to falling ill, said Mr Ooi Say Leong, a psychologist at National Healthcare Group Polyclinics (NHGP).

A sudden bout of stress can trigger asthma attacks - if you are a sufferer - as well as hyperventilation or panic attacks, he said. Dwelling on the stressful incident may make things even worse.

"If you keep thinking negatively about the incident, and blame yourself for the unpleasant experience during the trip, it is likely to increase your stress level and affect your mood during and, possibly, even after the trip," he said.

For some, such negative emotions can cause symptoms such as headaches and stomach discomfort. Other telltale signs of stress include angry outbursts, a poor appetite and an inability to stay focused.

Ms Teresa Fong, chief psychologist of the Psychology Clinic at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, said a little stress is not harmful.

But, she said, prolonged stress can cause or exacerbate cardiovascular disease, obesity, eating disorders, menstrual problems and sexual dysfunction. Mr Ooi and Ms Fong shared some tips and stress-coping strategies.

Allow plenty of time to reach a destination, and plan your itinerary well. Print maps of places you intend to visit, as well as useful phone numbers such as of the police and embassy. Back up important travel documents online, in case you lose them.

Set aside time for rest during sightseeing, in case you or your travelling companions become anxious and need time to calm down.

Don't blame anyone or get angry about any mistakes made. Try not to react impulsively.

Avoid indulging in alcohol, as this reduces your ability to assess the situation.

Listen to relaxing music on your mobile device.

Try this mindfulness breathing exercise when stressed:

1. Lie on your back or sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes.

2. Focus on breathing. Take note of the thoughts about stressful events that enter your mind.

3. Imagine putting each thought on a cloud and allow it to drift across the sky. Repeat this with the next thought that comes to mind, without judging or analysing it further.

4. Whenever your mind wanders, try to be aware of it and gently bring your focus back to your breathing.


The sleep cycle relies on the hormone melatonin, which is produced by the brain at about 11pm and peaks at about midnight or 1am and declines by 4-5am.

As melatonin production is based on "home time" and not destination time, a person may be unable to sleep at night after he travels across time zones, explained Dr Kenny Pang, a sleep specialist at Asia Sleep Centre at Paragon.

"Jetlag does not depend on the duration of travel, but the direction," said the ear, nose and throat surgeon. "You may fly for long hours up north or down south, but if you remain in the same time zone, you will not be affected." Generally, it is easier to fly west, as you gain time.

This means more time to recover from jetlag.

Disrupted sleep patterns due to jetlag and travel - if you are on the road late into the night, for instance - are usually temporary and harmless. However, sleep deprivation can cause poor concentration, mood changes and irritability, said Dr Pang. "If a person is extremely tired, he may doze off suddenly for short periods. These are called micro- sleeps - one has no control over them, which makes it dangerous when driving, for instance."

He offers these tips on beating jetlag and sleep issues during travel.

Play "catch-up": Take an afternoon nap whenever you can, including on the bus or train.

For a short trip, stick to home time. If the trip is long, adjust your sleep pattern to match the destination time. Stay awake as long as you can and, at the destination, sleep it off on the first night there.

Go to bed the same time each day, get regular exposure to outdoor light during the day to help regulate melatonin production, and do relaxation exercises before sleeping.

Have fun and stay safe when enjoying holiday activities


Physical activities such as sledding, ice-skating and snowboarding come with the risk of injuries, especially from falling on hard surfaces such as ice or hard-packed snow.

This can cause fractures, most commonly of the wrist; ligament tears, such as the knee's anterior cruciate ligament; and head injuries, which tend to be the most dangerous, said Dr Wang Mingchang of the National University Hospital Sports Centre. "Many of these injuries happen at the end of the day, when people are fatigued but over-exert themselves to finish that one last run," he said.

Some injuries are specific to the sport. For example, skier's thumb is a ligament tear that occurs when a person falls on his hand while the ski pole's strap is still attached to his wrist. The thumb is forcefully deviated from the other fingers, causing the tear.

Then there is the "snowboarder's ankle", which is a fracture of the outer part of the talus (a bone in the ankle joint) that can occur when a person lands awkwardly after a jump.

Generally, people with chronic ailments, such as diabetes and heart disease, should consult a doctor before engaging in winter sports as they may need further tests.

"They also need to be educated on methods to monitor exercise intensity and danger signs specific to their condition, and know when to stop exercising," said Dr Wang.

He offers these health and safety tips for popular winter sports.

Wear sunglasses or goggles which offer ultra-violet (UV) protection that will also allow you to see clearly. Sunlight reflected off snow and ice can damage the cornea and lead to "snow blindness".

Warm up, as cold muscles are more prone to injury.

Do not engage in the sport when tired. Never do it alone.

Learn how to fall safely. When skiing, for example, aim to fall forward. Keep your legs slightly bent, tuck in your hands and roll so you land on one side of your upper back.

When skiing or snowboarding, choose slopes or courses that are suited to your ability.

Watch out for tree wells. These are holes under big trees which may be covered by snow.

Wear helmets and, depending on the type of activity, wrist guards, elbow pads and knee pads.

Opt for safe-release skis in which the boot will be unfastened from the ski when the force of an impact exceeds a limit. When ice-skating, the boots should provide ample support around the ankles.

Adopt proper postures and positions for the particular sport. For instance, when sledding, sit in a forward-facing position rather than lie on your belly and ride head-first down a slope as this poses a higher risk of head injuries.


Road trips can be great adventures, especially if you prefer not to travel in big tour groups or be tied down to sightseeing schedules.

But being stuck behind the wheel for hours can cause body aches. Your eyes can become tired too, from having to keep your focus on the road all the time.

If you are the designated driver, be aware of these health hazards and precautions you can take.

Protect your eyes

The most common eye issues for drivers are fatigue from glare and eye strain, plus discomfort or grittiness from dry eyes, said Dr Karen Chia, a consultant at National Healthcare Group Eye Institute at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH).

The sun may be in your line of sight during the drive and looking directly at it without UV protection can damage the retina, the light-sensitive part of the eye.

Sunlight contains UVA and UVB rays, which are of different wavelengths. The former causes skin ageing, while the latter can lead to sunburn and skin damage.

While windshields absorb almost all UV rays, side windows block up to 70 per cent of UVB rays but allow all UVA rays through, said Dr Chia.

Long-term exposure to UV light can damage the eyes seriously. For instance, there is evidence that blue or violet light accelerates the development of macular degeneration, which is irreversible.

Those exposed to high levels of UV radiation may also develop cataracts, a clouding of the lens, earlier in life, added Dr Chia. Here are her simple ways to keep your eyes in tiptop shape throughout the drive.

Wear glasses or sunglasses with UV protection of up to 400nm, not just on sunny days, but also during overcast or hazy days. Clear lenses can have UV protection too.

Polarised sunglasses minimise glare from highly reflective surfaces. They help the driver see more clearly by enhancing colour vision and contrast, so driving in bright sunlight is safer and easier.

Take adequate breaks, such as every few hours. Even if you are not sleepy, close your eyes for a while for a quick refresh.

Blink often to lubricate your eyes as staring at the road inadvertently causes a person to blink less frequently.

Use lubricant eyedrops every few hours to combat dry eyes.

Drink plenty of water as open car windows and air-conditioning can cause painful, dry eyes.

Stop muscle aches and strains

Long hours in the driver's seat can also strain the back and neck, said Dr Teo Li Tserng, chief of trauma and acute care surgery at TTSH.

One should seek medical advice if the pain persists even after resting or taking painkillers, he said.

Drivers should adjust their seat position so that they are comfortable and able to see the road well, said Dr Teo, adding that they can also consider the following :

The steering wheel should be at a distance where, when you rest your wrists on its upper edge, your hands can touch the dashboard. While driving, the elbows should be flexed.

Adjust the headrest at a slight incline so that you can rest your head comfortably on it.

Avoid slouching in the seat.

Leg cramps may occur when you rest your foot on the accelerator for long periods. This suggests you have been driving for too long and should take a break.

If you feel your concentration slipping, take short breaks of five to 10 minutes. On average, our ability to focus on any task drops after about 45 minutes to an hour.

Drivers with a history of stroke or epilepsy must take their medication as prescribed.

This article was first published on December 1, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.