November 25, 2017
Air France Jet airplanes interior view
Ask the Experts

Air Travel and Colds

by Berkeley Wellness  

Q: How risky is air travel for catching colds?

A: Though it depends on the plane and who the passengers are, cabin air in commercial aircraft is generally no more likely to spread colds and other infections than the air in similar crowded, enclosed spaces, according to most expert groups. People often blame poor ventilation, especially the recirculation of cabin air, but the air is refreshed and filtered many times every hour (much less so, however, when planes are waiting on the tarmac).

Simple human proximity is the real culprit: Passengers get sick on planes by sitting within about six feet of someone who is sneezing or coughing. For colds, hand-to-hand contact via contaminated objects is also a risk. Thus, frequent flyers should be frequent hand-washers, or use hand sanitizers. That obviates the need for the wide variety of “anti-germ” devices sold in catalogues and online. Don’t count on Airborne or any other dietary supplement to prevent getting a cold.

What about wearing a face mask on a plane? There’s no evidence that wearing a mask made of paper, gauze, or cotton will protect you against infections on a plane or elsewhere, since viruses and bacteria are small enough to pass through any ordinary weave. Masks designed for hospital use, such as the N-95 respirator, are more effective, but they won’t block all viruses. Moreover, it takes training to properly fit and handle a hospital mask; if it does trap infectious organisms, you can become infected while handling it.

Also see Colds: 14 Expert Answers on Prevention and Relief and 9 Germ-Fighting Facts.