Airline travel can be a major hassle these days, with long security lines, considerable fees for checked bags and uncomfortably small airplane seats. The last thing you want to happen after enduring all this is to catch a cold or some other illness, and yet the close proximity with other passengers could put you at risk for doing so. Fortunately, according to medical experts, there are many steps you can take to minimize your chances of getting sick.
Take a Deep Breath
Dr. Aaron Glatt, spokesman for the Infectious Disease Society of America, says it’s important for people to realize that, contrary to some of the stereotypes, traveling on an airplane is not a surefire way to get sick. “It’s one of those things where [the risk] is a little bit more made up than it’s real,” says Glatt, who also is the executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre, N.Y.
“There’s no need to wear masks,” Glatt adds. “There’s no need to go crazy in these settings.”
Some of the health fears associated with airline travel stem from the fact that planes recirculate air; however, according to a recent article by Scott McCartney, the Wall Street Journal’s travel editor, most planes today use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that snag 99.97 percent of the air particles that carry viruses and bacteria. Still, airplane travel puts you in close quarters with lots of other people, and airplanes can contain some germ-laden areas, so it makes sense to take some basic precautions.
Keeping your hands clean is one way to help ward off sickness while flying, according to the website of Dr. Mehmet Oz, a.k.a. “Dr. Oz” of television fame. “Pack an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your carry-on and use it early and often (after getting seated, before and after eating and drinking, and when you return from the restroom),” the website says.
Dr. Oz’s website recommends being careful in the lavatory: “Airplane bathrooms are some of the germiest places around. Wash your hands afterwards, use a paper towel to open the door when you leave, and then slap on hand sanitizer when you’re back in your seat.” You should also drink plenty of water to keep your mucous membranes moisturized, the site says; airplane air can dry out those membranes, leaving them less effective at fighting infections.
Clean your tray table with a disinfecting wipe before you use it, and keep your hands out of seat-back pockets, which often contain used tissues and dirty napkins, McCartney urges in his article.
Being well-rested helps your body ward off infection, so make sure you get plenty of sleep before flying, the Cleveland Clinic says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends getting a flu vaccine before flying.
Sitting on a plane for long stretches can increase a person’s risk of developing deep-vein thrombosis (DVT), a condition in which blood clots form in the legs. The real danger of DVT is that one of the clots will break free and cause a pulmonary embolism by lodging in one of the pulmonary arteries that supply blood to the lungs. To reduce your chances of developing DVT, take a baby aspirin a half hour before take-off if you’re not at risk for internal bleeding, Harvard Medical School recommends. Also, wear loose clothing and comfortable shoes, stay hydrated, and walk up and down the aisle at least once an hour, the school says.
By taking the steps outlined above, you will increase your chances of staying healthy while flying. “If you take the proper precautions, you should do quite well,” Dr. Mark Gendreau of Boston’s Lahey Clinic Medical Center told the Wall Street Journal’s McCartney. “In most of us, our immune system does what it was designed to do – protect us from infectious insults.”
Air Travel Health Tips – from the Harvard Medical School’s website
Guidance for Commercial Aircraft Operators – from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website
How to Stay Healthy “Up in the Air” – from the Cleveland Clinic’s website
Toxic Travel: How to Stay Healthy – from Dr. Oz’s website
Where Germs Lurk on Planes – by Scott McCartney of The Wall Street Journal
Have other tips for how not to get sick on a plane? Leave us a note in the comments below.