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.