Stay Healthy on Airplanes This Winter

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Woman wearing a mask on a plane (Photo: iStockphoto/Marcel Braendli)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 21, 2009. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, airport, baggage, first-class airfare, frequent flyer, health and safety, Jaclyn Liechti, packing, winter.

With the cold and flu season upon us, the question on most travelers' minds is how to avoid a vacation-spoiling illness. The reason people are more likely to get sick during the winter is because they spend more time inside with others, and the close quarters on an airplane can mean even more contact. In fact, one recent study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research says that passengers are more than 100 times more likely to get sick on an airplane compared to everyday circumstances. This year, the added threat of H1N1 gives travelers even more reason to be wary of flying. Here are a few tips to help prevent catching a nasty bug if you do decide to take to the skies this cold and flu season.

Before you go:

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  • Pack items in plastic bags to prevent germs from spreading to your personal items. TSA officials go through hundreds of suitcases each day, increasing the chance of transferring viruses and bacteria to your belongings.
  • Get plenty of sleep before your flight to boost your immune system and make sure it's ready to handle anything it's exposed to.
  • Drink plenty of water and avoid dehydrating beverages like soda and alcohol, since dehydration inhibits your body's natural ability to fight infections.
  • Get a flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the vaccine as the best way to protect against getting the flu. Remember that this year there are two: the regular seasonal vaccine and the H1N1 vaccine. You'll need both to be fully protected.
  • Consider taking vitamins, especially vitamin C, to help protect and enhance your immune system. Some travelers swear by supplement products such as Airborne or Emergen-C, which are dissolvable in water, as well as easy to pack.

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While in Flight:

  • Wash your hands. Use soap and water or an alcohol-based gel, and be sure to rub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Studies show that regular soap has the same effect as antibacterial soap.
  • Again, drink water. Airplane cabins are very low in humidity—as low as 4 percent—which can dry out the sinuses, making it easier to be infected. Also, ask for bottled water whenever possible, since the aircraft's holding tank water often contains total coliform bacteria.
  • Use a saline spray. This will also help to moisten the sinuses and prevent dryness.
  • Use tissues to flush toilets and turn faucets and doorknobs in the bathrooms. Traces of E.coli are found in many airplane bathrooms.
  • Avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes, since this is the easiest way to introduce bacteria to your system.
  • Wear a face mask, which can help protect you from any bacteria that your sneezing neighbors might pass along.
  • Consider wiping down the armrests and tray table with a sanitizing wipe, since germs can linger on hard surfaces for a day or longer.
  • Avoid using blankets and pillows offered by the airline personnel, as they are rarely laundered and can harbor germs left by previous passengers. Instead, bring your own and be sure to wash them as soon as you get home.
  • Don't put your belongings in the seatback pocket. Passengers put everything from used tissues to toenail clippings to dirty diapers in there, making the pocket a holding tank for germs and bacteria.

Flying can always mean exposure to more germs, but by taking these preventive steps, travelers can lower their chances of becoming ill.

Readers, what are your best tips for staying healthy while flying? Share them below in the comments section.

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