Flying in winter can be risky. There are the sometimes-perilous threats of weather woes and the health concerns of cold and flu season. This year, add concerns over the global coronavirus outbreak.
You shouldn't necessarily change your flying plans because of the coronavirus outbreak, but there are simple steps you can take to try to stay healthy when you are in the air. Being smart about where you sit, what you touch and keeping your hands clean can help keep germs at bay.
The coronavirus question
Everyone is talking about the new coronavirus, which started in China in December. It has killed nearly 500 people and sickened more than 24,500 people across 25 countries.
Because the majority of people who have become ill are in China, many countries have put travel restrictions in place to and from China. The U.S. Department of State has a "do not travel" advisory for China and many airlines have suspended flights to mainland China due to the outbreak.
So, if your plans include a flight to China, you'll want to make some changes.
But that doesn't mean someone on your flight wasn't already exposed to the virus. Or has the flu.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there have been at least 19 million cases and 10,000 deaths from the flu in the U.S. alone this season.
How germs spread
When a sick person sneezes or coughs, they spread droplets of fluid from their nose or mouth, reports Verywell Health. These droplets carry infections.
If someone sneezes or coughs right on you, the germs can enter your eyes, nose or mouth and make you sick. But you don't have to experience direct contact.
The droplets can also land on a surface as far as six feet away where they can live for several hours. If someone touches that surface, they can become sick.
This is why you should always cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow or into a tissue and not into your hand; there's less chance of you spreading your germs to others that way.
How long those germs last depend on whether the surfaces are porous or not and whether the droplets come from mucous or saliva. Some viruses in droplets only last for hours, while others can last for months, according to National Geographic.
The dirtiest spots on planes are the places travelers touch the most: tray tables, seatbelt buckles, seat back pockets, air vents and restrooms. Many of these surfaces get wiped down between flights, says Forbes, but it's a good idea to be safe.
When you get to your seat, use disinfectant wipes to clean the tray table, the armrest, seat buckle and anything else nearby. Wash your hands with soap and water after using the restroom. Avoid touching the seatback pocket or anything inside it.
Carry alcohol-based hand sanitizer and use it before you eat. The CDC recommends sanitizer that's at least 60% alcohol. Don't eat anything directly off the tray table, even if you've wiped it down first.
During the entire flight — and always, really — keep your hands away from your eyes, face and mouth.
Other plane tips
There are other steps you can take while flying to lower your chances of getting sick.
Choose a window seat. When you sit near the window, you're less likely to get up and move around, which means you'll come in contact with fewer passengers. Research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).found that people sitting by the window are also safer because they're farther away from the aisle, which is where more potentially germy people go back and forth.
Open the air vent. Set your individual air vent on low or medium to help create a barrier around you to ward off germs. The air flow around you helps block airborne viruses from reaching you and forces them to fall to the ground more quickly. That means there are fewer germs to breathe in.
Skip the blanket. That extra air might make it chilly, but reconsider asking for a blanket (assuming your carrier even offers one). Unless your pillow or blanket is wrapped in plastic, there's a chance it was used by someone else before you. Hopefully, most airlines have changed this policy by now, but a 2007 study by the Wall Street Journal found that carriers clean their blankets on average every five to 30 days.
Consider a mask. There's a lot of debate right now during the coronavirus outbreak about the effectiveness of face masks for protection. The CDC has issued guidelines on the two primary types of face masks: surgical masks and respirator (N95) masks. Surgical masks are found at pharmacies and sold online and are worn in health care settings. They protect against large droplets and fluids, but not against airborne particles. Respirator masks offer much more protection.
A major problem with wearing masks is that people will rub their noses underneath them, lift them to talk on the phone or reuse masks meant to be used just once.
Avoid sick people. If someone is sneezing or coughing around you, ask a flight attendant if you can switch seats to move farther away. The earlier PNAS study found that passengers within two seats or a row of someone with a respiratory illness have an 80% or greater possibility of getting sick too.