Can flying make you sick?

Experts maintain that flying remains the safest way for travelers to reach their destinations. But despite those reassurances, many people still experience anxiety when thinking about their upcoming flights.

One of the most common worries is catching a bug from a fellow traveler and coming down with a cold, the flu — or worse. And those fears aren’t entirely unfounded. In fact, studies show that airline passengers are more likely to catch a cold during a flight than in their daily lives.

Coughs and sneezes are a major culprit

Close quarters are usually to blame when people get sick on planes. Flying means sharing a cramped, enclosed space for an extended period of time. If someone sitting near you is coughing and sneezing, you could be at risk of getting ill. That’s because germs are spread through the droplets people expel when they cough and sneeze. These droplets remain in the air only briefly. But if you’re close enough to an infected person to inhale them, you could be infected.

Contaminated surfaces are everywhere

The droplets expelled when people cough and sneeze inevitably land on surfaces, contaminating them. Touching those surfaces and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth could end up making you sick. Therefore, that ill person sitting near you shouldn’t be your only concern.

According to experts, nearly every inch of an airplane can contain bacteria and viruses capable of surviving on surfaces for days. Planes are typically only thoroughly cleaned and sanitized once a month. That means that if a sick person sat in your seat on a flight before yours, the seat cover, armrests and seat belt could be covered with germs. That goes for the tray table and seat-back pocket in front of you as well. In addition, the surfaces in the lavatory, including the door handle, sink and button used to flush the toilet, are common places where bacteria and viruses lurk.

Recirculated cabin air

Some people also worry that the air circulating inside the airplane cabin could make them sick. Airplane manufacturers and airlines claim that most modern aircraft use HEPA filters to remove airborne contaminants. They say these filters trap viruses and bacteria, and keep them from circulating within the cabin. But since there are no guidelines requiring HEPA filters in every plane, their use is strictly voluntary. And without regulation and enforcement air quality in planes remains a potential concern.

How to protect yourself

Thankfully, despite the contaminated surfaces and close quarters in airplane cabins, experts say there are steps you can take to minimize the chances of getting sick on your next flight. Here are some tips to follow both before and during your next airplane trip.

  1. Avoid touching your face.Keeping your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth during the flight will help keep the germs that may be on the surfaces around you out of your body.
  2. Bring disinfectant wipes.After storing your carry-on luggage, wipe down the surface of your seat, headrest, armrests, tray table and seat-back pocket before sitting down.
  3. Bring your own blanket and pillow.Airline blankets and pillows can be covered in germs, so it’s best to travel with your own just to be safe.
  4. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer.Wash your hands thoroughly with hot water and soap or use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol before eating and after using the restroom. Also, use your paper towel (instead of your bare hand) to open the bathroom door. Throw your paper towel away after you’ve opened the door.
  5. Ask to change seats.If you’re seated near a sick person, politely ask a flight attendant if it’s possible to move to another seat.
  6. Use the air vent.Setting the vent on low or medium and directing the flow of air in front of your head can help to blow germs away from your face.

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