November 21, 2017
How to Avoid Getting Sick on a Plane

How to Avoid Getting Sick on a Plane

by Jeanine Barone  

Nothing can derail a perfectly planned vacation like getting sick, especially if it happens before you even reach your destination. Alas, with their enclosed space and limited ventilation, airplanes provide the ideal environment for the spread of germs (bacteria and viruses). These tips can help you avoid catching an illness during your flight plus keep you more comfortable while airborne.

Before you fly

1. Pack your own blanket—or a large pashmina scarf that can double as a blanket—in your carry-on bag. If you plan to use a pillow on the flight, bring your own or, even easier, just a pillowcase; you can stuff a fleece, sweatshirt, or down jacket into it to create an instant pillow. Airlines may not launder these frequently or provide fresh ones after each flight.

2. Book a window seat. The aisle seat tends to get touched more by passengers as they get walk down the aisle, including to and from the restroom. A study in Clinical Infectious Diseases explored an outbreak of norovirus that occurred on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles in 2008. The likelihood of contracting the disease was highest for those who sat near an infected person or were seated on the aisle. If your flight doesn’t have assigned seating, try to be in the first boarding group so you can nab a window spot.

3. If you are prone to flatulence, avoid foods that produce gas, such as Brussels sprouts, beans, lentils, and onions, or drinking carbonated beverages within three hours of boarding your flight. Flatulence can be exacerbated when flying because of the significant drop in air pressure with ascent to the cruising altitude compared to air pressure on the ground. This, in turn, expands the air in the intestines, resulting in gas that either needs to be released (potentially causing embarrassment) or that, if held in, can cause stomach discomfort.

In your seat

4. Don't rummage through the seat-back pocket where dirty tissues, soiled napkins, and other items might expose you to infectious organisms. Researchers from Auburn University in Alabama sampled various airplane surfaces and found that two pathogens—E. coli and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)—were able to survive for up to a week on seat-pocket cloths, as well as on armrests, plastic tray tables, and metal toilet buttons.

5. Disinfect the tray table, which may be one of the dirtiest surfaces on the plane. In 2015, Travelmath, a travel website, released the results of a small study it commissioned in which surfaces on a handful of flights were swabbed for microbes and analyzed. The investigators found the greatest concentration of bacteria on the tray tables, followed by the overhead air vents, toilet flush buttons, and seatbelt buckles, in descending order of contamination. (The study thankfully found no fecal bacteria on the tested surfaces.) Use a disinfectant wipe or a paper towel moistened with hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol. It’s a good idea to also disinfect other surfaces at and around your seat, including the seat belt buckle, arm rests, air vent, call button, overhead light, remote control, and video monitor.

6. If your seatmate is obviously ill—coughing, sneezing, or, even worse, vomiting—ask the flight attendant if you can move several rows away. Cold and flu viruses generally travel only six feet or so when sprayed via a cough or sneeze. The H1N1 flu virus (swine flu) was more likely to infect people on an aircraft who sat closer to a sick passenger, according to a paper in BMJ.

7. Open the overhead air ventand direct it so that the current passes across your body and away from you (rather than blowing toward your face). Some experts say this strategy might reduce the chance that airborne organisms—such as droplets from a sneeze or cough—will make their way into your nose or mouth.

8. Hydrate. This isn’t just to prevent dehydration in the exceedingly dry environment of the airplane cabin. Your mucous membranes work best as your first line of defense against microbes when they are moist. Stay well hydrated by drinking bottled water, and use a saline nasal spray to moisten your nasal passages. If it’s a long-haul flight, remove your contact lenses to prevent dry eye.

Throughout the flight

9. Avoid water from the plane’s tap. If you’re brushing your teeth in the restroom, use bottled water rather than water from the tap in the sink. If you have compromised immunity, you may also want to avoid ice, coffee, and tea that are made on board. Data from the EPA and other sources have shown that the drinking water on some airplanes harbors bacteria that, while unlikely to cause illness in healthy people, might be unsafe for immunocompromised people.

10. When using the rest room, use a napkin or paper towel to open and close the door, rather than your bare hand. And close the toilet lid before flushing to reduce the risk of any microbes spraying on you.

In general

11. As a general rule, don't touch your eyes, nose or mouth unless you first washed them with soap and water or used a hand sanitizer. Touching your face after you've touched a surface that may be contaminated with organisms found in bodily fluids or from sneeze or cough droplets can expose you to an infection. Actually, that’s good advice to observe once you’re back on the ground, too.