There is enough to worry about when you fly—getting to the airport on time, the inevitable lines, hoping your baggage comes through when you arrive. While these may issues may be (mostly) minor inconveniences, catching a cold or the flu is a downright misery. There’s always a nagging feeling when we get on a flight that we are at a greater risk of catching something. Our instincts are right—our chances of being exposed to a cold or flu and comprising our inflight health are increased when we travel.
An airplane is an ideal place to catch an infection. Airplanes are designed to get people from one place to another and, while airlines try and maximize public health safety, this design does not always fit with keeping us healthy. First, the flu virus loves the temperature and humidity settings found in commercial airlines. While airplane environmental control systems typically maintain inflight temperatures around room temperature (around 73° Fahrenheit or 23° Celsius), humidity is kept at essentially desert levels (10%-20%). Airplanes are kept dry to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungus, as well as to protect the airplane structure from long-term damage. However, the influenza virus—the virus that causes the flu—is the most infectious at this temperature and humidity level.
Next, it doesn’t help our inflight health that we are packed like sardines in a can. When sitting in the economy class cabin, there is someone sitting 30-32 inches (76-81 centimeters) in front of us, 30-32 inches behind us, and 17-18 inches (43-46 centimeters) next to us. If we are lucky enough to have a middle seat, that means we have eight other people sitting in less than 35 square feet around us. While airplanes have fairly good air recirculation systems, this isn’t exactly comforting if one of the dozens of people in close quarters people happens to be sick.
Further, contact is the primary mode of transmission for rhinoviruses—one of virus types that cause the common cold. Rhinoviruses also happen to be very stable, so they can sit on surfaces for hours and still remain infectious. If you are flying at the end of the day you are left with an aircraft that may have infectious materials on tray tables, arm rests, TV controls, magazine pouches, and windows. And this doesn’t even take into account airplane lavatories, which are truly frightening from a sanitary perspective.
So, we are left with the image of an aircraft that, while impressively efficient at getting us from one place to another, isn’t exactly the picture of a hygienic environment.
Take Charge of Inflight Health: Six Tips to Avoid Getting Sick When You Fly
If you want to improve your odds against the germs and bugs you might catch on a fight, here are a few things you can do:
- Wash your hands. You should wash your hands frequently regardless of the circumstances, but this is especially important when on an airplane. While you may want to avoid a trip to the lavatory to wash your hands (unless you were headed there anyway), it is never a bad idea to wash your hands in the terminal as soon as you have deplaned. Using a small bottle of hand sanitizer can be a big help.
- Disinfect your seat area. Bring some disinfectant wipes and wipe down your tray table and armrests.
- Consider your neighbors. If you are sick, make sure you cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze.
- Sit a bit farther back in the plane. Studies show that airborne bacteria are higher in the front of the plane during boarding—presumably due to the seeming endless line of people walking by. If you sit further back, then you don’t need to watch every passenger walk by you. Similarly, you may want to avoid sitting near the lavatories, since you may have a lot of passengers walking by during the course of the flight.
- Bring your own magazines. If you need something to read, it may be best to avoid the magazines sitting in the seat back pockets. While the airlines don’t mind you taking these magazines home, you should probably leave them where they are.
- Protect your immune system! Stay hydrated, consider taking immune supplements as well as vitamin D, and get a flu shot.
As you can see, it doesn’t take much to maintain inflight health and protect yourself and your family from exposure to unpleasant germs. A little bit of planning can help ensure that you have a happy, healthy holiday season.
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