Forget snakes on a plane. Worry about the germs. Research shows that air travelers are at a higher risk for infection than people going about their daily lives.
Just how are illnesses spread on a plane? It comes down to two main factors: Airborne germs that are easily inhaled by people sitting in close quarters, or contact with germ-riddled surfaces on the plane. These factors are exacerbated by the dry conditions typical of airplanes, because viruses prefer low-humidity environments.
The good news is that, for the most part, airplanes’ air filtration systems function well enough that you’re unlikely to contract more serious illnesses. Instead, your greatest risk is contracting the common cold or a classic case of the flu.
While that’s all well and good, it may be little comfort to people who don’t particularly want to have a cold or the flu while trying to enjoy their vacation. Luckily, it is possible to decrease your risk of infection from germs on a plane. Here’s how to maximize the chances of disembarking the plane as healthy as you boarded it.
Don’t travel if you’re already sick.
If you know that you’re suffering from a contagious illness, do your immune system (and your fellow passengers) a favor and don’t expose yourself to any more germs by boarding a plane. In particular, the CDC advises that people avoid plane travel if you’re more than 36 weeks pregnant, have recently had surgery, have had a recent (serious) injury, or have a fever. In each of these cases, you’ll be traveling with a compromised immune system, which increases your risk of catching a contagious infection. Some airlines may be lenient with rescheduling fees if you can prove that you’re sick; contact the airline to discuss your options.
Ask to switch seats.
If you find yourself beside someone who’s hacking or sniffling, it’s okay (really!) to ask a flight attendant if it’s possible to switch seats. Even moving just a few rows away can help protect you from a sick person’s germs. If there are no other seats on the plane, donning a face mask might help.
Wipe down germy surfaces.
Tray tables, armrests, and seat-back pockets are consistently found to be some of the germiest parts of a plane. Minimize contact with these germs by using wet wipes to disinfect tray tables, armrests, and seat-back pockets and/or using hand sanitizer after touching any of these surfaces.
Wash your hands (a lot).
For the most part, your hands are your body’s primary point of contact with germy surfaces. Those germs (including cold and flu viruses) can survive on your skin for hours. The simple fix? Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or (in a pinch) with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Keep air vents open.
Circulating air is key to preventing the spread of illness on a plane, so keep the air vent above you open. And don’t worry—the air pumping through the vent is filtered and safe to breathe.
Bring your own blanket and pillow.
A Wall Street Journal investigation found that airlines tend to wash their blankets and pillows only every 5 to 30 days. (Yes, you read that right.) This means that when you borrow a blanket from the airline, you’re sharing a whole lot of germs. Avoid the issue entirely by bringing along your own travel blanket and pillow.
Close the toilet seat before you flush.
The spray that accompanies flushing spreads germs throughout the airplane bathroom; closing the lid before you flush will help you avoid contact with these nasty microorganisms. The flusher itself is also a hotbed of germs, so put a paper towel in between your hand and the flusher whenever you flush. And of course, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after using the loo.
The high elevations and low humidity typical of airplane travel have a dehydrating effect, which can provoke headaches, stomach problems, cramps, and fatigue, and diminish your immune system’s ability to fight off infections. The simple solution? Stay hydrated by regularly sipping water before, during, and after your flight. It’s also a good idea to avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can contribute to dehydration.
There are a few caveats to this point, however. It’s best to avoid drinking the tap water available on airplanes, because airplane tap water has consistently been found to contain levels of bacteria well above U.S. government limits. Opt for bottled water instead. For a similar reason, be sure to ask for drinks sans ice—since many planes refill their ice tanks at foreign airports, the water standards may not be up to par with what you’re used to.
Moisturize your nasal membranes.
Cabin air tends to dry out our nasal membranes, which are the immune system’s main line of defense against incoming germs. Keep your immune system functioning at optimal capacity by using a nasal mist or saline nasal spray during the flight.
While all the immune-boosting strategies in the world can’t guarantee your health with absolute certainty, practicing these behaviors on every flight will give you the best chance of making it through a plane ride with your immune system unscathed.