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Airplane survival guide: germ avoidance

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
germs, bacteria, viruses, air travel, infection

This time of year picks up; also some airplane travelers pick up an unwanted gift on their flight—a nasty germ. According to research on health-related air travel issues, air travelers are at increased risk of acquiring an infection. For example, one study reported that the increased risk for catching a cold was as high as 20%. Recirculated air is commonly blamed for the increased risk; however, studies have found that high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters on most aircraft today can remove 99.97% of bacterial and virus-carrying particles.

However, at times, the air-cleansing system is shut down; this occurs during flight delays on the ground and when passengers are boarding or exiting. At these times, the savvy air traveler must be on alert to minimize risk.

A study, which was conducted in 1979, found that when an airliner sat on the tarmac three hours with its engines off and no air circulating, 72% of the 54 passenger came down with the flu within two days. The virus that was responsible was traced to a single infected passenger. For that reason, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an advisory in 2003 to airlines recommending that passengers should exit the airplane within 30 minutes if there is; however, compliance was not mandatory.

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The risk of infection is greatest from passengers seated nearby; germ transmission is via coughing, sneezing, or hand contact (either direct or indirect). Indirect contact occurs when one touches an object, which has been recently touched by another. The high-risk zone is most often two seats beside, in front of, and behind you, according to a July 2011 study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. One sneeze can produce up to 30,000 droplets, which can be propelled as far as six feet.

The environment within an airliner cabin is particularly favorable to the spread of bacteria or viruses. The high altitude facilitates the spread of disease. Viruses flourish in the unusually dry air. When mucous membranes in the mouth and nasal passages dry out, they are much less effective in trapping germs. It is difficult to relax or sleep on longer flights and the decreased oxygen levels increases fatigue; these factors increase one’s susceptibility to infection.

Bacteria, and particularly viruses, can survive for several hours or more on surfaces such as pillows, blankets, seat backs, tray tables, and seat-back pockets. Seat back-pockets are often particularly nasty germ havens. People stuff used tissues, soiled napkins, trash––and worse––into the pockets.

To reduce the risk of acquiring an airplane germ, the following steps will help;

  • Clean your hands frequently with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. We often infect ourselves, touching mouth, nose or eyes with our own hands that have picked up something.
  • Use an antiseptic wipe to clean off tray tables before using.
  • Avoid dehydration; drink water and keep your nasal passage moist with a saline spray.
  • Minimize or avoid alcohol.
  • Open your air vent; aim it so the air stream flows just in front of your face. Filtered airplane air can help direct airborne germs away from you.
  • If you find yourself seated near a cougher, sneezer, or someone who appears ill, change seats if possible.
  • Express concern to a flight attendant if air circulation is shut off for an extended period.
  • Avoid airline pillows and blankets.
  • Avoid seat-back pockets.