With a combination of big crowds, stress and long-distance travel, it can be a challenge staying healthy around the holiday season.

We asked Gwen Verchota, lead nurse practitioner and care delivery manager at HealthPartners online clinic, www.virtuwell.com, to give some tips on how to avoid getting sick as well as what to do if you come down with an illness while out of town.

The holidays are a busy time. Can all of that stress make someone sick?

Yes! Many patients I treat at virtuwell.com are busy, struggling to make time to take care of themselves. In fact, stress causes 60-80 percent of doctors' visits. And that's not just over the holidays. All of the cooking, planning and buying gifts can be exhausting for you and your body. That's why this time of year it's important to get as much rest as possible. Wearing your body down can leave you more susceptible to illness and just not feeling like yourself. So aim for at least seven hours of sleep. The more well-rested you are, the less stressed you'll be in the long run - and healthier. What can travelers do to stay healthy if they're going to be cramped in a car or airplane?

While there's actually no research to show that you're more likely to get sick after flying or being in a cramped space, any time you are in close contact with a lot of people there's bound to be the spread of germs. So it's best to be cautious. The most important thing you can do is wash your hands often, and sanitize the areas around you. The more people traveling, the more germs on board, too. Changing your boarding routine can help too, a recent study found. Boarding last, or at least standing back from a long line of people waiting to board, can actually help keep you healthy.

What about big holiday gatherings? How do we keep from exchanging germs this holiday season?

The holidays are for sharing the love but it can be easy to spread sickness, too. First and foremost, don't cough and sneeze all over your family members. Always make sure to cover your mouth, and wash your hands often. Around the dinner table can also be a breeding ground for germs. So make sure not to share food or drinks with others. They'll thank you in the long run. It also doesn't hurt to encourage your family members to get a flu shot each year. Making sure your family is vaccinated can help keep you all healthy during the holidays!

Is it too late to get a flu shot?

It is never too late to protect yourself from the flu. While flu season peaks during the holiday months, it can last well into May. Once you've gotten the vaccine, you're protected from half of all flu viruses. Those are some good odds! You can walk into any HealthPartners Clinic or Park Nicollet Clinic and receive a flu shot until Dec. 31. The quick trip is worth protecting you and your loved ones this season.

I got sick away from home - now what?

Getting sick while traveling can be a drag, and spending hours in urgent care isn't how anyone plans to spend their holidays. But there are other convenient care options. A few are online, like virtuwell.com. We can treat things like pink eye, bladder infections and sinus infections and other illnesses that have the potential to ruin a holiday or vacation - but aren't so serious you need the ER. A lot of online care can be a good place to start, without even driving anywhere. And if we can't treat you, we will recommend places near you that can see you in-person, no matter where you might be.