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How to avoid the flu when you fly

November 27, 2013

    The day before Thanksgiving is arguably the nation's busiest travel day, with millions of Americans in transit for the holiday. (Some 40 million of us end up traveling across the week, and about 3 million go by air.)

    But all the rushing to catch a connection can lead to increased risk of catching a cold, with worn-out travelers exposing each other to potential illnesses. And one of the most common spots for disease transmission? Aboard an airplane, warns the University of Arizona's Chuck Gerba.

    We spoke with Gerba—a microbiologist and expert in "fomites," or inanimate objects that are capable of spreading disease—about some of the most alarming hot spots on a plane, and the measures travelers can take to protect themselves. It was a mildly terrifying conversation.

    » Which workplace surfaces harbor the most germs?

    Plain truth about flying

    Gerba and his research team have conducted a slew of studies that examined "high-touch" areas on airplanes, collecting samples from sinks, tap handles, door handles, trays, arm rests, and even the button to open the overhead luggage rack.

    Their conclusion: Germs are rampant, in both some obvious (the seatback pocket) and less obvious (the armrest of an aisle seat) locations.

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    Gerba offers a special warning about using the on-board bathroom, which his team found to be the germiest spot on the entire plane.

    "There is one toilet per 50 people on an airplane—unless you're flying Southwest. Then it's one toilet per 75 people," Gerba reminded us.

    His advice? "If you can hold it, hold it. You're more likely to pick up something from going to the bathroom than just sitting in your seat."

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    We were curious about whether being confined in a plane, where you're breathing other passengers' air, could help spread illness. That's certainly the belief of some passengers, who worry about a plane's recirculated air and may travel wearing masks over their noses and mouths.

    But Gerba didn't think it was a major risk.

    "Usually the air is not much of a problem because it doesn't go back and forth—it goes around and is filtered," he says. "So when we've seen cases of influenza on air planes, it’s usually only the person right next to them—to the front, the back, or to the side—that has to worry."

    Steps for prevention

    Gerba gave us his two best defenses to stay germ-free:

    • Bring hand sanitizer (and make sure you use it).
    • Don't put your hands to your face until you've used the hand sanitizer. "Use a disinfectant wipe if you have one with you."

    After speaking with Gerba, we also canvassed for other potential risks and safety tactics. One writer warns the magazines in the seatback pocket are "a virtual biohazard" and recommends that passengers avoid touching them; a Mayo Clinic infectious disease expert suggests that you should also wipe your hands after handling the entertainment console and even if you've touched your seat cushion. 

    So simply put, the expert advice boils down to this: When on a plane, keep your hands to yourself. (And clean them thoroughly if you don't.)

    The Daily Briefing's Hanna Jaquith contributed to this post.

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