How to Stay Healthy While Flying
Worried about the spread of germs and catching something on your next trip? Follow these 8 tips so you can sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight.
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 always go up before holiday weekends — but data tells us that prices go up and down equally before holidays. The same selective recall can be true with air travel and sickness.”
And because getting sick is the last thing you want when traveling, “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:
False. Sitting on the tarmac, the air inside a plane may seem stuffy because it is recirculated (through high-efficiency particle HEPA filters) 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. And flight attendants do not get sick more often than the general public.
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. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, illness as a direct result of air travel is uncommon. Remember, a yearly flu vaccine is the BEST way to prevent influenza even if you’re exposed.
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. (Just make sure your bottle is less than the 3.4 oz/100 ml allowed by safety guidelines!) Hand-sanitizer towelettes also offer an easy, airplane-friendly way to keep your hands clean and reduce your risks.
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. This is the most important time to keep hands clean with soap and water or hand-sanitizer.
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. If you don’t plan ahead, it’s all too easy to stay up late the night before travel. For long flights, sleep masks, earplugs or noise-canceling headphones and a small pillow can help you sleep.
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.
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.
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. When worn properly, they filter out 95% of particulates, including germs, and provide you with additional peace of mind. Just keep in mind that they can feel restrictive, so you might want to try one out at home before traveling.