Airplanes aren’t exactly airborne petri dishes, but it is “flyer beware” during flu season. You might be 113 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane than in your normal ground-level life, according to a study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research.
“The best advice is, ‘Don’t get on a plane,’” said Dr. Scott D. Olewiler, infectious disease specialist at Beebe Hospital. “It’s impossible to protect yourself in that environment. You’re literally in a tight environment with hundreds of other people.”
The good news is you can take steps to limit your risk—if you know where germs lurk.
Cold and flu are transmitted in two ways: through touch and through small, invisible droplets secreted from the nose and mouth. “I’m sure they are dropping on the telephone righ t now as I’m speaking,” Olewiler said. “There’s an area of about three feet around you where these small droplets are transmitted. You don’t have to cough or sneeze—just when you speak, they fly out. It’s a good idea, if you’re near someone who is infected, to stay outside of that range. You can’t do that on an airplane, of course.”
When you slide into your seat, you don’t know what the previous passenger left on the tray table or the armrest for you. Cold and flu germs live longer on tray tables and other hard surfaces than on fabric armrests and in seat pockets. Cold viruses might live three hours on a tray table, Olewiler said. Influenza viruses live much longer—possibly one to two days.
The best defense: Limit your risk. Get a flu shot. Stay hydrated. Lay off the alcohol and caffeine. Pack some antiseptic hand rub or alcohol wipes. Wash your hands frequently—and carefully.
Frequent flyers who pooh-pooh flu shots because they’ve read this year’s vaccine is not a perfect match for one mutated strain are ill-advised, said Dr. Karyl T. Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health.
“This year’s flu shot is even more important than in other years because of the severity of what we are seeing,” Rattay said, referring to Delaware’s five flu deaths. “The flu vaccine is a close match for almost all the strains that we’re seeing. It’s just not a perfect match for that one mutated strain.”
Olewiler underscored the importance of getting a flu shot. “It’s not so important whether or not you get the flu. It’s really important that you survive,” he said.
To cut your chances of bringing home a souvenir you didn’t want, check these tips:
- Frequent hand washing is your best defense against germs. Use hand sanitizer or soap and water. Make certain your hands are clean before touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
- The germiest place on the plane is the bathroom—nonstop of germs, nothing but hard surfaces. Olewiler recommends the hand-washing method he learned in infectious-disease training: “The right way is to wash your hands, leave the water running, reach for the paper towel, wipe your hands, then use the paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the doorknob. Then kick the door open.”
- Stay hydrated, because airplane cabins are less humid than most other places. Water is your best onboard drink. Ditch the dehydrating caffeine and alcohol. Dehydration can cause fatigue, increase jet lag, and decrease your ability to fight off infection, Rattay said.
- Pack some hand sanitizer or alcohol wipes to clean your hands, and wipe down that tray table before you fiddle with it. “Tray tables could be a really important means of transmission,” Olewiler said.
- The close quarters make it even more important to cough or sneeze into your inner arm, Rattay said.
One more thing: “It’s probably a good idea to bring your own magazine,” Olewiler said.