Staying Healthy on a Plane

8 travel truths from an expert

people on airplane

We all know someone who flew home from vacation with an unexpected souvenir: a cold or virus. It may seem like flying can make you sick, but that’s not necessarily true.

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“It’s better to be guided by data than to rely on hearsay,” advises Cleveland Clinic infectious disease specialist Steven D. Mawhorter, MD, Medical Director of the International Travel Clinics. “People perceive that gas prices go up before holiday weekends — but data tells us that prices go up and down equally before holidays. The same is true with air travel and sickness.”

And because getting sick is the last thing you want to do on vacation, “you’re not likely to forget it,” he notes.

Below, Dr. Mawhorter weighs in on eight common beliefs about air travel and our health below:

1.  Airplane air is full of germs

False. Sitting on the tarmac, the air inside a plane may seem stuffy because it is recirculated to prevent us from smelling fuel. That changes once you get to high altitudes. Half the air in an airplane at 35,000 feet is coming in from outside the plane and is absolutely sterile. It has no microbes! The rest of the air is filtered with high-efficiency-particle HEPA filters similar to those used in critical hospital areas.

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2.  You’ll get sick if another passenger is ill

Not necessarily. You may be exposed to an illness if you are sitting immediately next to, in front of or behind someone with a cold, the flu or (in rare cases) something more serious. Even with the influenza A (H1N1) pandemic of 2009, reports of in-flight transmission were limited, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Yellow Book on International Travel. Remember, getting a yearly flu vaccine can prevent you from catching the flu even if you’re exposed.

3.  You’ll get sick if you’re unlucky enough to be seated by a sick passenger

Not if you’re careful. If you cover your cough, wash your hands and keep your hands away from your face, you can stay healthy. Using hand sanitizer after touching surfaces touched by others is a great idea. This gets tricky because you can’t bring gel or liquids on a plane. Hand-sanitizer towelettes offer an airplane-friendly way to keep your hands clean, especially before in-flight meals.

4.  If you aren’t exposed to something on the plane, you probably will be at the airport

Possibly. The increased mingling of people in an airport does present some risk. You’re likely to be in contact with more people — and more potentially contaminated surfaces — than normal as you are being processed for a flight or walking through a concourse.

5.  A good night’s sleep will help you resist infection

True. A recent study found that the likelihood of developing a cold was greater with less than seven hours of sleep, compared with eight or more hours of sleep. Think about how you might get more rest before, during and on your way home from a trip. Plan to get eight hours in before flying – if you don’t plan ahead, it’s all too easy to stay up late the night before. For long flights, eye patches, earplugs or noise-canceling headphones and a neck pillow can help you sleep.

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6.  Taking vitamins will protect you from infection while flying

Not likely. A popular vitamin-mineral-and-herb supplement claims to reduce risks of infection while flying, but no data support those claims. Small supplemental doses of vitamin C or D won’t hurt you, but practicing good hand hygiene will pack more of a punch in preventing infection.

7.  You can avoid jetlag with carb loading and caffeine

False. A lot of folklore exists about caffeine and carb-loading, but no data show that any jet-lag “remedies” actually work. One thing that won’t help is drinking alcohol to fall asleep on a plane. Drinking enhances dehydration, and dehydration worsens jet lag.

8.  Thinking you’ll get sick while flying increases the likelihood of getting sick while flying

False. Anxiety won’t make you ill, but it will certainly put a damper on your travels. Take the proactive prevention measures mentioned above to protect yourself and reduce stress. If you have a health issue that may worsen with infection, consider an N-95 mask. You can purchase these lightweight masks at any home improvement store. No prescription is needed. They filter out 95 percent of particulates, including germs, and provide you with additional peace of mind.

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