As winter rolls in across the northern hemisphere and the holiday travel season forces us into close quarters with others, here are some tips for keeping the bugs at bay.

As winter rolls in across the northern hemisphere and the holiday travel season forces us into close quarters with others, cold and flu viruses come along for the ride, infecting a significant number of travellers.

For example, Health Canada, the country’s national health agency, estimates that between 10% and 25% of Canadians get the flu each winter.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some tips for keeps the bugs at bay while travelling:

Track the flu
Before you take off across a continent or around the world, use Google’s new Flu Trends tool to check if there’s a flu outbreak in the city you’ll be visiting. Google found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people are actually getting sick in a given region. By counting how often Google sees flu-related search queries, the tool estimates how much the flu virus is circulating in different countries and regions around the world. In the US, the Weather Channel posts a colour-coded “Influenza Reports” map, which illustrates which states have the most (or least) severe outbreaks. Novartis, the company that makes the medication Theraflu, offers travellers a cold and flu tracker mobile app to help pinpoint and prepare for outbreaks. Health Canada’s FluWatch maps also track the spread of the flu across Canada’s provinces.

Consider trip insurance
Nothing’s worse than making plans, buying non-refundable airline tickets and then catching a bad cold or flu at the last minute, forcing you to cancel or interrupt a trip. Trip cancellation or interruption insurance plans, as well as broader “cancel for any reason” policies protect travellers from financial losses due to illness.

Wash up
Cold and flu germs are primarily spread among humans via dirty hands, so pack a few individually wrapped antibacterial towelettes or a small bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Neither are as effective as soap and warm water, but they do the trick when you can’t find a sink. During cold and flu season, make it a point to not touch your mouth, nose or eyes unless your hands are clean, because cold and flu germs enter the body through mucous membranes.

Get a shot and pack medication
Frequent travellers are exposed to germs more often than non-travellers, so consider getting a flu shot early in the season.

Also consider long-acting decongestant sprays or tablets, which help keep blocked nasal passages open when cabin pressure changes during take-off and landing. (Decongestant  can be overly drying in airplane cabin air — so consider saline solution, too). Also, don’t forget aspirin, ibuprofen or Tylenol to help reduce fever and make you feel better if you do get sick on the road.

Many frequent travellers swear by fruit flavoured tablets that act as fizzy cocktails of vitamins, herbs and minerals when the tablet is dissolved in water. They go by various names, such as Airborne, Berocca or Emergen-C. You may also want to consider nasal gels or lozenges that contain Vitamin C, Echinacea and/or zinc, which manufacturers claim can help reduce the duration of a cold. Also, carry along a mentholated inhaler, which can alleviate pressure and sinus pain during airline takeoff and landing.

Take a vacation
Despite the threat of catching the cold or flu, the simple act of taking a vacation could be good for you. According to a recent Hotwire survey, 81% of travellers reported feeling energized and productive after returning from a leisure trip. "Travel stimulates the brain and promotes the growth of new synapses, [it] heightens creativity and may even resist Alzheimer's disease," said Dr Matthew Edlund, director of the Center for Circadian Medicine and author of The Power of Rest. "Your brain, like the rest of your body, rebuilds itself constantly, but it needs to be given the regular opportunity to do so. Taking frequent leisure trips at regular intervals continually rests and rejuvenates you, increasing your productivity and sense of satisfaction."

Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel