Why do you get sick when you stop? Two experts explain.

I don't know if it was just me, my family or almost every person I've spoken to recently, but it seems like a loooooooot of us got sick over the break. COVID, gastro, like the flu but not The Flu – you name it, someone you know probably got it, and I for one would like to know why.

Not just because I spent New Year’s Eve in bed with a bucket, ya know just living the dream, but because anecdotally this seems to happen all the freakin' time. Everyone’s got their own version of this story but generally it goes something like this: you’ve been under the pump for weeks just going and going as you count down the days until you can finally take a break. Then, said break arrives – hello holidays! – and bam, you fall in a heap. 


It’s an occurrence so common that in 2002, Dutch researcher Ad Vingerhoets coined the term "leisure sickness" to describe the condition of people developing symptoms of sickness during weekends and/or vacations. 

Vingerhoets' study, which included 2000 men and women, found around three per cent of people felt more unwell during the weekends and on holidays than during regular work weeks. The most frequently reported symptoms were headache/migraine, fatigue, muscular pains and nausea in addition to viral infections such as cold and flu. 

Vingerhoets concluded that people with heavy workloads are most likely to suffer from "leisure sickness". Though Vingerhoets' theory became quite popular at the time, many medical professionals aren’t so convinced, citing there isn’t enough scientific evidence to substantiate its claims.  

So, if "leisure sickness" isn’t a thing, what’s going on then? Is it just a coincidence? Are we just imagining it? Dr Nirvana Luckraj, Chief Medical Officer at Healthdirect Australia and Dr Kenneth McCroary, Chair of the Australian Medical Association (NSW) and general practitioner explain more.

It’s just the nature of holidays.

Dr Luckraj says there are a few reasons why we may find ourselves getting unexpectedly sick when we take a break from work or go on holidays, including the following:

  • Crowds: Holidays usually mean more people around, and more chances to get exposed to germs. (I’m looking at you, end-of-year concerts, presentations, and Christmas parties.)

  • Poor sleep: Staying up late, sleeping less, or having a disrupted sleep schedule can all weaken our immunity.

  • Unhealthy habits: Holidays often come with unhealthy treats like overeating, drinking, and smoking, which can all lower our immunity.

  • Travel: Going to new places means encountering different environments, climates, and germs that our bodies aren't used to.  

Watch: How to chuck a sickie in five simple steps. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia.

The stress factor.

When we’re really busy and stressed, like a lot of us are these days, it’s pretty common to delay R&R until you can take some proper time off, such as when you go on a holiday. The trouble is, if you head into a break completely exhausted, your immune system isn’t going to be working at its best to begin with.

"When you are stressed, your body’s immune system is stimulated to help heal wounds or injuries. During longer period of stress, your immune system may become fatigued, making you more vulnerable to infection and illness and taking longer to recover. So, if you want to keep your immune system strong, it's important to find ways to manage stress and keep cortisol levels in check," says Dr Luckraj.

It sounds counterintuitive, but the sudden reduction of stress can also have a negative effect on your body.


"Holidays are often a time for relaxation and stress relief, but the sudden change in routine and stress level can weaken the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness," adds Dr Luckraj.

Additionally, studies have shown that high levels of cortisol can increase people’s tolerance to pain. Therefore, the reduction of stress may actually make minor aches and pains more noticeable while you’re on holiday than when you’re pushing through in your usual day-to-day grind.

It hits different in the holidays.

According to Dr McCroary, there’s not enough evidence to suggest a direct link between falling ill and going on holidays. What he says is more likely is that we’re generally more bothered by being sick when we’re on holidays than when we’re at work. 

"Science doesn't always reflect that being on holidays or coming off after an extra busy workload does make you more sick or less sick. We probably don't get more sick on holidays than when we're not on holidays but it certainly has a bigger effect on us," says Dr McCroary.

"We may be sick throughout the year and it's not such a big deal, but if we've been looking forward to time away or taking a break and then we get sick, it becomes a bigger deal and it has a bigger impact on our psyche. Anecdotally, it probably becomes further up the hierarchy of our experience in the last 12 to 24 months."

So, how do we avoid getting sick next time we’re due to take a break?

Obviously, nobody wants to spend their downtime unwell, so in order to reduce your chances of getting sick on your break, Dr Luckraj says you should try to give your immune system a boost in the lead up to your holiday by implementing the following: 

  • Take care of yourself: Make sure you’re eating well, sleeping enough, and getting some exercise.

  • Manage stress: Find ways to relieve stress like meditating, hanging out with friends, or doing an activity you enjoy.

  • Practise good hygiene: Wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your face. If you're travelling, wear a mask.

  • Keep up to date with immunisations: For example, get a flu shot to protect yourself from the flu.

  • Limit alcohol consumption: Be aware that alcohol can weaken the immune system.

  • Be careful who you hang with: Avoid large gatherings and steer clear of sick people.

  • Ease yourself in and out of holidays: If possible, try to take an extra day either side of your planned break to make transitioning between work/rest modes a bit more gradual.

Dr McCroary adds that we should also be trying to look after our health all the time, not just when we’re on holidays or just about to go.

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"Looking after the immune system is just part of the overall healthy lifestyle choices we make day in and day out. Whether you're away or whether you’re at work, just try to be sensible in terms of sleep, rest, diet, exercise, relaxation and recharging every day. If you’re finding that you’re feeling overwhelmed, then it's probably time that you look for some support, whether that be with people you know or with other professionals like psychologists or a GP."

Whatever the reason may be for falling ill when you take a break – and clearly there’s more than one – here’s hoping it doesn’t happen to you, me or anyone else next time the holidays roll around. 

Emily McGrorey is a full-time reader, part-time procrastinator, freelance writer, casual Pilates student, and aspiring author. You can follow her on Instagram here.

Feature Image: Getty.

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