How to avoid getting sick on a plane

Jan 12, 2020

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published on Dec. 1, 2018.

It’s officially that time of year. The holiday decorations are coming down, the hot tea is flowing, and pretty much everyone around you is sick.

If you’re worried about catching the flu, you’re probably already doing everything possible to avoid germs — especially when traveling. You cringe at the sound of the passenger next to you coughing because you fear whatever virus they’re packing along with their carry-on will quickly infect you in such a small space.

The trepidation may be warranted. A study referenced in a 2011 Wall Street Journal article found that you have up to a 20% higher chance of catching a cold on a plane — and 100 times more, according to the Journal of Environmental Health Research. In fact, so many passengers on a 2008 flight from Boston to Los Angeles contracted norovirus after a sick passenger boarded, the plane made an emergency landing three hours into the flight.

And this year, flu season may be worse than usual. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s the first time since the early 1990s that influenza B has the predominant strain of flu virus in the U.S., and it’s most dangerous to children.

So, how do you protect yourself — and your family — from catching the flu while traveling? We tapped several experts to give their top tips.

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Avoid using the bathroom on short flights

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

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 eight ounces of water per hour you’re in the air to maintain your hydration,” said Dr. Nathan Favini, medical lead at Forward, a new technology-based health care startup. “Alcohol and caffeine will dehydrate you even more, so save the cocktails and coffee for your destination.”

Photo by Sebra/Shutterstock
Photo by Sebra/Shutterstock

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

Avoid Certain Areas of the Plane

In addition to washing your hands, you should be cognizant of those areas on a plane that are particularly high touch and infrequently cleaned. 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.

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.”

Choose your seat carefully

On an airplane, studies have shown that the aisle seats experience significantly more traffic and run a greater risk of exposure. Why? Well, 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.

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

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 can actually prevent it.

“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.

Do Some Health Prep

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.”

Take Vitamin C

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 1,000mg of Vitamin C per day are less likely to fall ill with viral infections,” said Dr. Favini. “And, travel is often stressful.”

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

Wear a Mask

For those of you really concerned about getting sick, you can always wear a mask. “Since respiratory viruses are the most common cause of illness while traveling and are transmitted through the air, it’s a good idea to carry a mask to protect yourself if you sit near someone who has symptoms of a respiratory infection,” said Dr. Favini.

An N95 face masks filter out 95% of particles, according to the CDC, and can be up to 90% effective in preventing infections.

Additional reporting by Melanie Lieberman. 

Featured photo by Stokkete/Shutterstock

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