Moms

Getting ready for a healthy, happy vacation involves more than packing your suitcase

When you're leaving for vacation, one of the last things on your mind is your health -- you're too busy packing, wrapping up stuff at work and making arrangements for the neighbor to feed Fluffy while you're away. But after investing so much time and money in your getaway, you don't want it ruined by throwing out your back schlepping luggage or sniffling through a newly acquired cold. And if you can indulge without gaining 10 pounds, that'd be nice, too. Not to worry. Here are Prevention magazine's tips for safe, healthy travel:

Scatter long weekends through the year

It goes without saying that vacations zap stress and make us happy, but it turns out that simply looking forward to your next trip may bring the biggest smile to your face. Dutch researchers found that people with upcoming vacations scheduled were happier than those without a trip booked, but happiness levels of the two groups were about equal after the travelers returned. It may be the anticipation of upcoming travel that accounts for its mood lift, which means that taking a few short weekend excursions throughout the year could make you just as content as a pricier two-week jaunt.

Bring a natural jet-lag fighter

Crossing a few time zones on your vacation? Melatonin supplements may help your body adjust. Your body produces this circadian rhythm-setting hormone naturally (it's what helps you feel sleepy at night and awake in the morning), but traveling can throw your internal clock off. In a one study from the journal Sleep, researchers found that people who took as little as 0.3 milligrams of melatonin got about a half-hour more snooze time.

Pack a mini first-aid kit

Whether you're exploring the Grand Canyon or loafing around in Aruba, you'll be grateful you brought your own supplies if you start feeling under the weather. Here's what we recommend you have on hand:

Any prescription meds you take. Pack them in your carry-on luggage, and always in their original container. Bring more than you think you need, just in case.

Bug repellent, especially if you're going hiking or to a country where malaria is a risk. Pick one that contains DEET for maximum protection. Include topical cortisone cream for rashes and bites.

Sunscreen and lip balm. Choose SPF 15 or higher. Include body lotion with aloe to soothe burns.

Diarrhea remedies. If you're traveling to a developing country, take along loperamide or Lomotil. Ask your doctor about a prescription antibiotic to be taken at the first sign of diarrhea.

Miscellaneous items: It's a good idea to always pack an OTC pain reliever, bandages, tweezers, scissors, laxatives and a thermometer, as well as tampons or pads and medication for yeast infections if you're traveling abroad.

Splurge on an inflatable pillow

Got back pain? Position a pillow in the gap between the small of your back and your airplane seat. This will counteract the tendency to slump and decrease the risk of in-flight back pain. Once you've taken off, perch your feet on your carry-on bag on the floor. This will bring your knees above your hips, which takes pressure off your lower back. Another helpful tip: Angle overhead vents away from you: Cool air can stiffen your neck and shoulder muscles.

Brown-bag your food

You never know what greasy airport or roadside rest stop options await you, so prepare for the worst with your own DIY meal. For the plane, pack a whole-wheat sandwich, a bag of trail mix, easily portable fruits such as apples and bananas, etc. For car trips, tote a small ice chest filled with similarly nutritious fare. If you do hit up a roadside stop, stay away from fried items and fatty condiments such as mayo and oily dressings. Grilled chicken sandwiches are OK if you hold the mayo. Ordering a salad? Get the dressing on the side, and dunk each bite in it to shave empty calories off your meal.

Pack your car the night before

If you're leaving in the morning, pack up your car at night. Fluids pool in your spinal disks while you sleep, making your lower back taut and sensitive to irritation when you first wake up. Before getting into the car, take a short walk to loosen your leg muscles, and be sure to stretch. Don't worry about making good time at the expense of taking frequent breaks, either. Prevent that drowsy driving feeling by stopping every two to three hours to stretch and walk around; both will give your energy levels a much-needed bump.

Act like a fire marshal

When you arrive at your hotel, we know you just want to plop down on that fluffy king-size bed -- not think about safety hazards. But spend an extra three minutes to inquire about fire exits, alarms and sprinkler systems, says Rebecca W. Acosta, executive director of Traveler's Medical Service in New York City. (It's not like hotels are fire- and flood-proof.) To be safe, always lock your door and avoid first-floor rooms, which are too easily accessible from outdoors.

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