Can Travel Make Athletes Sick?

Illnesses were reported in greater number the further athletes got from home

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) There may be more to home field advantage than just familiar surroundings and local fans. Crossing a few time zones more than doubled some athletes’ sick days.

A recent study followed professional rugby players for their 16-week season. Rates of illness increased based on how far away from home they traveled.

"Don’t tax your immune system before a big trip!"

Martin Schwellnus, MD, professor in the department of human biology at the Institute of South Africa in Cape Town, South Africa, led an investigation into jet lag and athletes getting sick.

For the study, 259 elite rugby players were tracked for 16 weeks during their 2010 competition season. By multiplying the number of players by the number of days, there was a total of 22,676 player-days up for assessment.

Team doctors kept track of all illnesses, as well as when and where those illnesses occurred.

The results showed that 20 percent of the athletes reported illness. Sick reports nearly doubled from 15 to 33 in a given day when being at home was compared to traveling abroad.

A total of 187 players, around 72 percent, reported 469 illnesses to their team doctors over the 16 week period.

The greatest incidence of illness was reported when the players were in a time zone more than 5 hours different than their home.

The players traveled between South Africa, Australia and New Zealand for the season with a time zone variable of 2 to 11 hours difference from home.

Respiratory conditions accounted for 31 percent, stomach problems accounted for 28 percent and skin and soft tissue infections accounted for 23 percent.

The incidence of sickness dropped to 11 reports once players returned home. This indicated that the players weren’t getting sick from air travel, but possibly from environmental changes.

The further away a destination, the more likely climate, temperature, allergens, bacteria and pollution would be different.

Further research is necessary to gather more specific information on contributing factors to elite athlete illness due to travel.

This study was published in August in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Funding was provided by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Research Center, no conflicts of interest were found.

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Review Date: 
August 8, 2012
Last Updated:
April 24, 2013