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There are lots of theories about why people fall ill after traveling on airplanes, but most are myths. It's not the recycled air; it's not the airplane food; and it's not (usually) poor cabin air quality -- because, well, most planes have strong filtering systems.
Plain and simple, you get sick on planes because you are in close contact with other people and their germs for hours at a time. You touch grimy surfaces that, just moments before you, may have been touched by a cold-ridden toddler. You use public restrooms and sit on chairs and eat off of tray tables and hold onto handrails used by hundreds of thousands of people per day.
You breathe the same air as the people in your aisle who, given the layout of most planes, are breathing (and coughing and sneezing) literally inches away from your face.
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How to avoid getting sick on planes
Since the primary reason that people get sick on planes is contact with germ-infested surfaces and air, the primary defense is minimizing contact. When you fly, you enter an environment where you have little control, but one thing you can control is how clean your own body, property and spaces stay.
First, use common sense
The majority of tools in your arsenal involve personal health precautions -- doing things that anyone should do if they want to avoid pathogens in any public environment.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth: Don't forget that the transmission of
has more to do with your hands. If you pick up a virus from an infected surface, you can easily transmit that virus to yourself by touching sensitive areas like your eyes, nose and mouth. Keep your hands away from your face for a reduced risk of getting sick.
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Carry antimicrobial wet wipes: Handrails, arm rests, seats, seat backs, tray tables… All of these surfaces get touched by millions of people, most of whom probably don't wipe them down. Have antimicrobial wipes on hand to clean surfaces before you use them.
Also carry hand sanitizer: You will encounter times when you can't get to a sink and soap when you want to. Carry a small container of hand sanitizer for easy cleaning wherever you are.
Bring your own pillow and blanket: Some airlines offer blankets and pillows for nighttime or very long flights. If I were trying to avoid getting sick, I wouldn't even consider accepting this offer. Bring your own pillow and blanket if you want to snuggle up, because you never know if the last passenger coughed fits into their pillow.
before you fly: Your immune system's strength decreases when you're running on fumes. To keep your immune system at the ready to fight off infectious diseases, make sure you get enough quality sleep leading up to your flight, and especially the night before. A regular evening routine may help you establish a healthy sleep cycle.
Hydrate and eat healthy leading up to your flight: Just like sleep affects your immune system, so does your diet and level of hydration. Your body needs vitamins, minerals, electrolytes and water to function properly -- depriving yourself of these things before air travel may increase your likelihood of contracting a virus or bacterial infection.
Get vaccinated: Truth be told, if you fall ill on the same day that you fly, you most likely did not pick up that virus or infection on the plane. Viral and bacterial infections both have a set-in latency, meaning that it takes a while for symptoms to appear after you've been infected. This phenomenon -- called an incubation period -- can last days for certain viruses, including the flu.
Then, add some helpful tools and tricks
For an extra layer of germ protection, try some of these
and additional tips.
PhoneSoap: Not to jarr you, but your phone is probably the dirtiest thing you touch on any given day. Even if you work in a germy or dirty place. You can certainly wipe your screen down, but germs cling despite those efforts. Enter PhoneSoap, a portable sanitizer that rids your phone of bacteria and viruses with ultraviolet rays. A nice bonus: PhoneSoap charges your phone while cleansing it.
PlaneAire: If you like the idea of portable cleaning products (like hand sanitizer) but not the idea of smudging harsh chemicals into your skin, try PlaneAire, a travel mist made only of essential oils. The specific blend of oils in this product purportedly eliminates nearly 100% of bacteria on surfaces and isn't intended for use on your skin, but is much gentler than hand sanitizer nonetheless.
TrayGuard: This antimicrobial slipcover goes on the tray table you use for food and drinks on planes. Food-contact safe and chemical free, TrayGuard is made of the same materials in FDA-approved and NIOSH-approved face masks, and claims to keep you safe from viruses, bacteria and fungi that may linger on your tray table.
Turn on your air vent: It's a myth that the recycled air on planes causes illness -- but you still may be at risk for airborne pathogens hovering around your face. Turning on your air vent (and positioning it toward your feet) can help circulate said germs away from your nose and mouth.
Choose the window seat: To minimize your exposure to germs, you must minimize your exposure to people. This may not be a hard-and-fast scientific fact, but one study found that sitting in the window seat minimizes passengers' contact with other people, thereby potentially lowering your risk of contact with airborne and direct-transmission (skin-to-skin contact) germs.
Bring your own entertainment: Do yourself a favor and leave the airplane magazine in the seat pocket. While a good source of entertainment, these magazines can be just as filthy as the seats and armrests in a plane. Bring a good paperback novel or watch a movie on the seatback screen (with your own headphones).
Pack a portable humidifier: Part of the reason that so many people get sick on planes is the extremely low-humidity cabin air. At very low levels of humidity, some of our immune defense systems cripple, such as mucus production in our eyes, nasal cavities and airways. A portable humidifier can help reinstate some of that mucus production once you're in your hotel room.
Use a filtered water bottle: If you want to avoid single-use plastic but also don't want to drink straight out of airport water fountains (especially abroad), consider getting a filtered water bottle. The Astrea One water bottle is our top pick for filtering tap water, proven to remove many chemicals and heavy metals.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.