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. You can take precautions to help decrease your risks of catching something while on an airplane.
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“It’s better to be guided by data than to rely on hearsay,” advises infectious disease specialist Steven D. Mawhorter, MD. “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.”
Below, Dr. Mawhorter weighs in on eight common beliefs about air travel and our health.
1. Airplane air is full of germs.
False. Sitting on the tarmac, the air inside a plane may seem stuffy because it’s 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.
2. You’ll get sick if any passenger on the plane 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. 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.
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, your chances of catching (or spreading) germs decreases. Using hand sanitizer after touching surfaces touched by others is also recommended to help prevent illness. (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.
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. This is the most important time to keep hands clean with soap and water or hand-sanitizer.
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. 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.
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, plus 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.