It’s officially flu season: How to avoid getting sick on a plane

Oct 21, 2020

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.

It’s officially that time of year. The temperatures are plummeting, the hot tea is flowing and flu season is right around the corner. But unlike your standard flu season, travelers must now also contend with the very real and continuing threat of the novel coronavirus.

You’re probably already doing everything possible to avoid germs these days — especially when traveling. In addition to complying with mask requirements, you might be sanitizing your seat, wearing goggles or a face shield and declining any food or beverage service.

Fortunately, many precautions designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 should also help protect you from seasonal influenza, according to Healthline (which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures).

And staying healthy during flu season may be more important than ever. Sure, no one ever wants to get sick, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it’s important to “reduce the burden of flu illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths on the health care system and conserve scarce medical resources for the care of people with COVID-19.”

Plus, it’s possible to contract both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time. Epidemiologist Dr. Seema Yasmin, director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative, told CNN Health that, “getting infected with one can make you more vulnerable to getting sick with the other.”

With so many similar symptoms, it might be difficult to tell if you’ve contracted the flu or the coronavirus, making prevention incredibly important this season.

So, how do you protect yourself — and your family — from catching the flu while traveling? Here are our top tips.

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Wear a Mask

If you’re planning on flying in the near future, wearing a mask will be a requirement. But though these regulations are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, wearing a mask can also help keep you safe from influenza.

“Respiratory viruses are the most common cause of illness while traveling and are transmitted through the air,” said Dr. Nathan Favini, medical lead at Forward, a new technology-based health care startup.

According to the CDC, face masks are most effective when worn by the person who is sick. It helps prevent any shedding virus particles from spreading to others. It’s not foolproof, but it helps. And, while a healthy person wearing a mask isn’t as effective, it can certainly block some particles from easily getting into your mouth or nose.

Related: Do kids have to wear face masks on planes?

Keep your hands clean

We all know that washing our hands is key to preventing sickness, but it’s especially true when traveling.

“Keep your hands clean,” said Dr. Nicholas Testa, chief physician executive at Dignity Health in Southern California. “This means a combination of good hand hygiene with either soap or water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.” The CDC recommends an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with 60% to 95% alcohol content, such as Purell.

Related: Naomi Campbell’s preflight routine is totally insane

Skip the bathroom

If it’s a short flight, make sure you go to the bathroom before your flight takes off, New York-based primary care physician Dr. Marina Gafanovich told TPG. Why?

“You have to understand that many people are sharing that bathroom,” she said. “And research suggests that there are significant germs on sinks, flush handles and toilet seats on airplane bathrooms. That is why it’s best to use paper towels when you touch the toilet seat or faucet or even the door latch.”

Stay hydrated

Photo by Sebra/Shutterstock
Photo by Sebra/Shutterstock

Onboard air humidity is about 15%, whereas we’re used to between 30% and 60% humidity on land. The very low humidity of the cabin air can dry out the mucous membranes of your nose and airways. When these tissues dry out, they are much more susceptible to viruses and bacteria. To combat this, stay hydrated.

“Bring your own bottle of water and aim to drink 8 ounces of water per hour you’re in the air to maintain your hydration,” said Dr. Favini. “Alcohol and caffeine will dehydrate you even more, so save the cocktails and coffee for your destination.”

Related: Hot take — Why airlines shouldn’t serve alcohol on planes right now

Avoid Certain Areas of the Plane

In addition to washing your hands, be cognizant of those areas on a plane that are particularly high-touch surfaces. The flu virus, for example, can live on any hard surface for up to 24 hours.

“Don’t use the tray table and, if you really have to, make sure you carry sanitary wipes with you and clean it before you use it,” said Dr. Gafanovich. “Also, don’t store items in the seatback pocket. We know many people use it, so it’s likely to be full of germs.”

Testa also recommends avoiding or wiping down overhead air vents, lavatory flush buttons and seatbelt buckles. So, be sure to stock up on hand sanitizing wipes before your next flight. (Many airlines are now providing these, but don’t leave anything to chance.)

Stick with the classics, like Purell, or a pack of gentle alcohol-free Germ-X wipes with moisturizing Vitamin E. CareTouch makes alcohol-free, fragrance-free wipes that are gentle enough for young children and have soothing Vitamin E and aloe. We also like Trip Wipes: individually-wrapped towelettes designed specifically for travelers with a refreshing citrus scent.

And if you just want to spray your hands (or everything), try Dr. Bonner’s lavender- or peppermint-scented organic hand sanitizer spray in TSA-friendly bottles.

Don’t touch your face

Even if your hands are clean, it’s best to keep them away from your face, too.

“Even if your hands have touched the dirtiest, germiest surfaces, you won’t get sick from that unless you bring those germs to a point of entry (nose, mouth, eyes),” said New York state-based Dr. Frank Contacessa. “Get in the habit of never rubbing your eyes, touching your mouth or your nose unless you just washed your hands. This is one of the greatest ways to avoid getting sick.”

Wear gloves

Just can’t kick the habit of touching your face? Try gloves.

Dr. Julie Fischer, a research associate professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University told TPG earlier this year, “Gloves are useful in that they remind people not to touch their own noses and mouth … when you’re wearing gloves, you become hyper-conscious of that. But the best protection for individuals is to be very careful about handwashing.”

Choose your seat carefully

(Photo by Demkat/Getty Images)
Photo by Demkat/Getty Images

On an airplane, studies have shown that the aisle seats experience significantly more traffic and run a greater risk of exposure. Why? Well, in part, sick patients tend to brace themselves on those seats when walking to the bathroom.

“The window seat is a better selection if you want to minimize the risk of respiratory transmission,” said Dr. Testa. These seats generally don’t have as much contact with passengers.

Travelers may also want to be very proactive about booking flights with an airline that is taking care to limit passenger and flight attendant interactions and has also committed to reducing capacity. Delta Air Lines, for example, will block middle seats and limiting capacity in Main Cabin, Comfort+ and Premium Select through at least Jan. 6, 2021.

Keep Your Air Vent On

While you might think that sitting in recycled air for hours could cause you to be sick, keeping your air vent on may actually help.

“There’s been some research that showed that using the overhead air vent, directed straight downward, can create a cone of protection,” said Dr. Contacessa. “It can actually prevent airborne germs from getting close to you. The airflow from the vent can help to ward off another passenger’s sneeze germs.”

In fact, high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters found on planes remove at least 99.97% of any airborne viruses and bacteria. That air is also getting refreshed about 20 times per hour. An office only gets refreshed about 10 times.

Prepare your body

Photo by MIA Studio/Shutterstock
Photo by MIA Studio/Shutterstock

Before you even set foot on a plane, you can start preventive measures to avoid getting sick.

“Start a regime of probiotics to keep the gut from holding onto bad bacteria and encouraging the body to fight infection by increasing the good bacteria in your gut,” said Dr. Testa. “Take a zinc supplement and get the flu vaccine two to three weeks prior to travel.”

And if there’s one thing you should stock up on before you travel and take while on the plane, it’s Vitamin C. “Studies have shown that people under stress who take 1,000 milligrams of Vitamin C per day are less likely to fall ill with viral infections,” said Dr. Favini. “And, travel is often stressful.”

Related: Study shows the chance of contracting COVID-19 on a plane less than the risk of getting hit by lightening 

Bottom line

Staying healthy when traveling has never been more important.

And though many of the preventative measures in place to curb the coronavirus may help you from contracting the flu or other common illnesses, travelers need to be more cognizant of their health than ever. That means remembering even the most basic steps to stop the spread of germs. Among the other tips mentioned above, the CDC urges people to remember to discard tissues immediately after use and wash your hands; avoid contact with people who are sick; and, above all else, stay home and away from others if you yourself are feeling under the weather.

Additional reporting by Melanie Lieberman. 

Featured photo by Stokkete/Shutterstock

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