Study: Deadly bacteria can live for days on an airplane

Beware the seatback pockets, study suggests

Deadly Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria can live on the seatback pockets of airplane seats for up to a week, according to a new study examining how infections are able to spread through airplane cabins.

From the archives: Eight tips for avoiding germs in an airplane

For the research, Auburn University researchers simulated an airline cabin by keeping a lab at 75 degrees Fahrenheit and 20% humidity. They then brought actual airplane cabin surfaces—armrests, tray tables, window shades, seats, seat pockets, and toilet flush handles—into the environment and painted MRSA and E. Coli bacteria on them.

The researchers presented some of their findings at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology on Tuesday. They found that MRSA lived for:

  • 168 hours on the cloth seatback pocket;
  • 144 hours on the armrest and seat;
  • 120 hours on the window shade and tray table; and
  • 96 hours on the toilet handle.

Meanwhile E. coli lived for:

  • 96 hours on the armrest;
  • 72 hours on the tray table; and
  • 48 hours on the toilet handle.

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In general, the bacteria lived best in "small nooks, like the ones created by a pore… protected from environmental stressors like dehydration, UV, and disinfectants," according to lead author Kiril Vaglenov. However, researchers also found porous surfaces did not act as good conductors of bacterial transmission. Rather, less porous surfaces—such as tray tables, toilet handles, and window shades—were more likely to transfer bacteria.

"The take-home message is be careful about your hand hygiene and don't travel while contagious or immune compromised," says Vaglenov.

Study: Susceptibility to MRSA may depend on the season

Experts weigh in

Delta Airlines, who provided the airplane cabin surfaces to researchers, says, "We have efficient cleaning specifications that are standardized across our entire operation… [including] removing all trash, wiping down all countertops, surfaces and seats, cleaning floors, and replacing and restocking pillowcases and blankets among several other procedures."

Michael Schmidt, a Medical University of South Carolina professor of microbiology and immunology, offers this advice: "Before you put anything into your mouth, bring some alcohol hand sanitizer and sanitize your hands. After I wipe my hands, I use the rest of the alcohol wipe to wipe down the tabletop, just in case I touch it and inadvertently eat something" (Hudson, "The Chart," CNN, 5/20; Bernstein, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 5/19; Haiken, Forbes, 5/20).

How to avoid the flu while you fly

Do you know where the "hot spots" of germ clusters are aboard an aircraft? We've flagged some obvious (the seatback pocket) and less obvious (the armrest of an aisle seat) locations.

Check out this infographic and accompanying article for tips on how to keep healthy on your flights.

Like this infographic? We've got many more! See the four infographics your peers liked most in 2013, or view our entire archive.

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