How to Avoid Getting Sick at Theme Parks


It’s winter time down here in Australia and everyone we know has already been sick (ourselves included).  The CDC has flagged 2018’s dominant strain, H3N2, as causing severe symptoms which can potentially be deadly, especially to high-risk groups (like the elderly or very young).  

Viruses like cold and flu can travel lightning quick, especially where large groups of people are gathered sharing surfaces and immediate atmosphere (like, oh, say, theme parks and airplanes).  Disneyland has seen its fair share of viral outbreaks, including a measles outbreak in late 2014. Here in Queensland, our own annual Brisbane Show, or Ekka, has been notorious for outbreaks of influenza and E. coli in recent years.

Even at the height of “sick season”, fear of catching the latest lurgy making the rounds shouldn’t deter you from getting out in the fresh air and enjoying a theme park visit.  The following tips and a little common sense will help you avoid getting sick over your next theme park holiday.

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Follow Good Hand Hygiene Habits

#1: Wash your freakin’ hands!

 It’s the first tip because it’s the first line of defense and the most effective.  It seems like common sense, but it’s surprising just how overlooked this one gets.  In fact, 95% of people who use public toilets do not wash their hands properly afterward.  Ew! 

The viruses and bacteria that make us sick are transmitted through particles that become airborne and land on surfaces.  In other words, in the strictest sense, viruses are not “airborne”.  Also, you can’t technically become sick from getting “breathed on” by someone who is sick, or sharing airspace with them.  That is, of course, unless they cough, sneeze or otherwise forcibly eject bodily fluids within a 10 metre radius of you without covering their mouths.  In fact, the most common way to “catch” a virus is by touching an infected surface and then ingesting the organism through your mouth, nose or eyes.

Yes, that’s right.  To get sick, you have to physically ingest somebody’s snot, spit, puke or poop.  Pretty revolting when you sit back and think about all the times in your life you’ve been sick, isn’t it? 

Just 1 g of fecal particles can contain 10 million virus organisms, 1 million bacteria, 1000 parasites and 100 parasite eggs.  To put that into perspective, it takes only 18 norovirus microorganisms to strike someone down with a violent stomach bug.  Similarly, droplets of saliva or mucous containing the virus that made them sick become airborne when someone sneezes and coughs.  Eventually, those droplets will land on a surface.  The viruses in that droplet can live outside the body on the surface it lands for hours (up to 2 weeks for norovirus).  They lay in wait for you to come along, touch the infected surface and then go sticking your fingers in your mouth.

The only way to actually remove those viruses or bacteria from your hands is to physically wash them away by scrubbing your hands for 15-20 seconds with soapy water.  You should wash your hands:

  • After using the toilet, changing diapers, or helping your child to use the toilet

  • After touching garbage

  • Before eating, or handling food

  • After contact with animals (such as in a petting zoo – the Brisbane Ekka E. coli outbreak was traced to animals in a petting zoo)

According to the CDC, the most effective way to wash your hands is as follows:

  • Wet your hands thoroughly with running water, turn off the tap and apply soap

  • Lather your hands with soap thoroughly.  Make sure to scrub each fingertip (that’s where the majority of bacteria will be).  Also scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers and underneath your nails

  • Scrub your hands together for at least 15-20 seconds – not 6 seconds, which is the amount of time the majority of people spend on the whole hand washing process.  You should be able to sing Happy Birthday twice through while you lather, as my Nanna used to tell me.

  • Rinse your hands thoroughly under running water, removing the suds.

  • Dry your hands properly, using an air dryer or paper towel.  Use a paper towel to open the restroom door if you can.  Drying your hands properly is as critical as the washing part.  Bacteria spreads 1000 times faster on damp hands than dry.

Washing your hands not only prevents the spread of germs to others but also prevents you from getting sick.  In fact, if everybody just washed their hands properly, we could reduce the amount of respiratory illness in the world by 20%, the number of diarrhea outbreaks by 40% and the amount of food poisoning outbreaks by 50%.

#2: Stop touching your face

In the same vein, unless you’ve just washed your hands, stop putting your them in your face.  You might think you don’t touch your face that often, but the average American touches their face every 20 seconds.  Yikes!  If you want to avoid bringing the flu home from Disney World as a souvenir, no picking your nose, boredly trying to touch your own eyeball without blinking while you’re standing in a line, or chewing your fingernails.

#3: Get a flu shot before you go

This one’s controversial but honestly, just do it.  No, it won’t keep every virus, like the common cold or stomach bugs away.  No, it won’t guarantee you immunity against the flu but it drastically tips the odds in your favor.  Some say it’s bollocks but having been ill with flu these last two years, I won’t skip it next year.  Every year that I skip it, I get horrifically ill.  Every year I bite the bullet and get the jab, I hardly get so much as a snuffle.

#4: Avoid unnecessary touching

Washing your hands is only half of the bargain in keeping your hands clean.  The other is keeping your hands to yourself in the first place.  This means not running your hands over every handrail and plush toy in the gift shop you lay eyes on. (Disclaimer: of course, you should hold onto handrails/grips designated for safety purposes to prevent falling or keep you safe on a ride).

Handrails have been shown to contain mucus, feces, blood, and E.coli.  Similarly, each number key on an ATM machine has been shown to contain up to 1,200 infectious germs.   This is why it’s a good idea to wash your hands or sanitize them properly after going on a ride, using an ATM or EFTPOS keypad, handling things in a gift store or patting live animals.

#5: Avoid sick people

Where possible (and it’s not always possible), avoid sitting in close proximity to people who are visibly very unwell.

#6: Use hand sanitiser

Whilst hand washing is always the preferred option, if soap and water aren’t readily available, using a hand sanitizer at concentrations of over 70% alcohol can be an effective substitute. (That is, so long as your hands aren’t visibly dirty or grimy, in which case only hand washing is likely to be effective).  Using a sanitizer like Dettol, which has alcohol concentrations under 70%, may kill bacteria but may not be as effective against viruses, like norovirus, which causes stomach bugs.  I like Aqium Gel in Australia, which is 70% ethanol alcohol and doesn’t dry out my hands as much as other brands.  In the US, I understand Clorox hand sanitizer is very effective. 

Also, it turns out there is a right way and a wrong way to sanitize your hands.  The wrong way involves using too little and not allowing it to dry on the hands properly before touching things.  Just slapping a little bit of hand sanitizer and giving your hands the ol’ quick two second once over rub does little to nothing.  According to the CDC, the proper way to use hand sanitizer is as follows:

  • Apply a dime (2 cm) sized dollop of hand sanitizer to the palm of one hand.

  • Rub your hands together thoroughly for 20-30 seconds (exactly as if you were washing with soap and water – sing Happy Birthday twice).  Cover all surfaces of your hands, including between each finger, over the fingertips and underneath the fingernails.

  • Most importantly, allow the sanitizer to dry completely before touching food or other surfaces.

#7: Try to avoid the drinking fountain

Drinking fountains are often not cleaned often enough to prevent infection.  Not to mention that as cold, moist liquid receptacles they provide the perfect environment for bacteria to grow and spread.  Drinking fountains were found to be the most filthy things in a school, with the handles and spigots covered in germs like influenza A and norovirus.  Buy bottled water, or bring water from home in a reusable drink bottle if the theme park you’re visiting allows.

With that being said, whilst you probably don’t want to guzzle on them all day, if you’re healthy and fit, a sip or two from a drinking fountain likely isn’t going to do you too much harm.  To be on the safe side, let the water run for a couple of seconds before having a drink.  Don’t put your mouth on or over the spigot or any other surface, don’t touch the basin or the rim and wash or sanitise your hands after touching the handle (which harbours the most bacteria).

Keep Your Immune System Strong

No matter how hygienic your habits, they will be far less effective if you aren’t building upon a strong foundation – namely, a bolstered immune system.  A well cared for immune system will not only help to prevent you from getting sick but if an errant bug does make its way through your initial defenses, a strong immune system may help to make the bug milder in severity or shorter in duration.

#8: Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables

Your immune system begins in your gut, so it stands to reason that staying healthy starts with a nutritious diet.  An abundance of vitamin rich fruit and vegetables goes a long way in combating inflammation and disease within the body.  Choose fruit and vegetables in a variety of colors (“eat the rainbow”) for a complete spectrum of vitamins and minerals.

#9: Exercise

Regular exercise helps to bolster the immune system and possibly even prevent you from getting sick.  Scientists aren’t sure why or how this works, but there are a few theories:

  • Exercise flushes the lungs and airways of bacteria, reducing the chances of coming down with respiratory illness.

  • It helps white blood cells, the body’s disease fighters, to circulate through the body more rapidly.

  • It slows down the release of stress hormones.  You have a greater likelihood of getting sick if you’re stressed, anxious and run down.  Exercise helps to alleviate stress, which may, in turn, reduce your risk of getting sick.

  • The brief rise in your body’s temperature when you sweat prevents bacteria growth.  Usually, bacteria doesn’t like warm temperatures.  This works in a similar way to fever, during which your body raises its own temperature to kill the bugs.

#10: Get Plenty of Sleep

Your body does its system reset over the course of a good night’s sleep.  It’s during your night’s sleep that your body does most of the heavy lifting in terms of repairing damage, fighting infection and restoring energy.  Studies have proven that lack of sleep increases your chances of becoming sick after exposure to a virus or bacteria.  It can also affect how quickly you are able to recover from a virus if you do get sick.

While you’re sleeping, your body releases proteins called cytokines, which fight infection and inflammation in the body.  If you’re not sleeping properly, your body releases less of those proteins, making you more susceptible to being ill.  The optimum amount of sleep is 7 to 8 hours for adults and 10+ hours of sleep for children.  If you’ve got a trip coming up, it pays to schedule in a little extra beauty sleep to give your immune system a good boost.

#11: Take Your Vitamins

This one’s a matter of choice.  Personally, as a nutritional therapist, I believe a nutritionally balanced diet is your first and most important line of defense. I do not believe in taking vitamins and then eating whatever you want.  I strongly caution against taking vitamins and supplements as a substitute for a healthy diet.  However.  Certain vitamins as an insurance policy on top of a nutritious diet can provide a helpful immune system boost while travelling. 

The most obvious choice is vitamin C, which boosts the immune system and can reduce the severity of colds and flu if they do break through your defenses.  Start taking this before your trip and continue to take it during and afterwards.  A B-vitamin complex can also boost your immune system and also helps to keep your energy levels high throughout the day. 

I’ve heard of people having wonderful success with Airborne as a way to prevent getting sick while travelling. We don’t have such a supplement available here in Australia, but I do like Blackmores Immune Defence + Probiotic – it’s a multivitamin and a probiotic supplement in one.  Taking a probiotic tops up your gut with good bacteria and can help to ward off stomach or digestive issues.  

Note: Please consult a doctor before taking any vitamins/supplements to ensure they’re right for your own nutritional and health needs.

#11: Stay hydrated

Human beings are mostly made up of water.  It makes sense, then, that we need to stay properly hydrated in order to work at our optimum level.  Our immune system function is no exception to this.  Not only does drinking plenty of water help to flush toxins from your body but it also oxygenates your blood and helps to produce lymph (which circulates white blood cells).

But seriously… don’t worry about it and have a good time

At the end of the day, no matter how vigilant we are with hygiene, or how healthy we eat, sometimes we Just Get Sick.  As much as getting sick mid-once-in-a-lifetime-theme-park-trip sucks, sometimes it’s unavoidable.  I mean, I would consider myself to be a fastidious hand washer and I eat a very healthy diet.  Yet here I sit, typing this very blog post with an absolute monster of a flu anyway.

#sickhappens.  Sometimes it happens no matter what you do to prevent it.  Others, you could do all the wrong things and still not get sick.  Of course, it’s worth putting in an effort to avoid it and to avoid spreading it to others.  It’s not worth stressing about it or going overboard to try and avoid it.

So, use your common sense with hand hygiene at theme parks, airports and on aircraft (really, everywhere), give your immune system a boost when you’re travelling, and forget the rest and have fun.  Theme parks are here for our enjoyment, not to be looked on as a cesspit of germs and disease.  Get out there and enjoy them.  Do your best to be clean and healthy, and only worry about getting sick if it happens (that’s a blog post for a different day).


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