How not to get sick on airplanes

November 13th, 2019

Over the next few months, Americans will be traveling for the holidays.  Unfortunately, this travel time will also coincide with the peak of the cold and flu season.  During the holidays, we tend to gather indoors in homes that are sealed up, which allows germs to spread quicker than if the activities were outdoors.  Here are some tips that can prevent you and your loved ones from getting sick on airplanes.

  • Get your flu shot (if you haven’t already).  Getting the flu can be devastating, but fortunately, the flu shot provides some protection and can shorten the duration and severity of symptoms.  You should get your flu shot as early as October, but no earlier.  It takes about 2 weeks for the flu shot to be maximally effective, so be sure to get it at least 2 weeks before Thanksgiving.
  • Get adequate rest.  The holidays can be a stressful time with chores, shopping, cooking, and traveling.  Make sure you allow your body to rest.  Your immune system will work the best if you do.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol on the plane.  Even moderate amounts of alcohol reduces your immune system significantly.  Alcohol also worsens jet lag, and in some people the effect of high altitude enhances alcohol, i.e. you can get drunker faster with lower amounts.  Here are other negative effects of alcohol.
  • Wipe down your seating area, tray table, television screen, remote control, arm rests, and seatbelt buckle.  These are usually not cleaned between flights, so they have the potential of harboring several passengers’ worth of germs.  I recommend WetOnes antibacterial wipes as they are TSA approved for carry-ons.  Antibacterial gels are still considered liquids and can’t really remove dirt without a cloth.
  • After using the toilet, wash your hands, dry them, then use the WetOnes antibacterial wipes to clean your hands after you return to your seat.  Having been on many airplanes with tiny bathrooms, it’s almost impossible to avoid touching the lock or doorknob.
  • Avoid drinking coffee or tea on the plane.  The “hot” water in planes usually runs through old pipes which have been found to harbor bacteria.  Furthermore, the water doesn’t reach boiling temperature long enough to kill them.  Ask for bottled water, seltzer, or juices instead.
  • Open the air vent above your seat and point it so it is aimed just in front of your face.  Many studies have found that the air in vents is relatively germ free as the air filtration system is usually decent.  By aiming the air away from your face, you create a current of air that can deflect germs.  Imagine if someone sneezed near you, releasing millions of fine germ particles into the air.  By having the air blown away from you, these droplets would be deflected away from your face and body, reducing your chance of breathing in the droplets.
  • Use antibacterial wipes on your hands just before you are ready to eat.  Even touching the menu or magazines just before you eat can contaminate your hands.  Germs need to enter our body through our nasal passages or our mouth.  Each time we touch something and then our face/mouth/food, is a potential risk for infection.
  • Avoid raw vegetables or meat on flights originating in countries where you cannot drink the water.  Many travelers assume that when food is served in plastic containers they are somehow made “sterile”.  In my experience, I have seen many travelers avoid certain foods, only to eat them on the plane resulting in severe illness.  Save the raw vegetables or meat for when you return home.  Typically, flights that originate in the US should be ok.
  • Opt for seats away from the aisle.  Many people walk down the narrow aisles constantly.  One or two people coughing while walking down the aisles can spread tiny droplets onto the heads of people sitting along the aisle.
  • If you are sick, cough into your elbow, not your hands.  Here are some tips for traveling while sick.
  • Exercise regularly before and after your flight.  Regular workouts can boost your immune system and can also reduce your risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) which is a life threatening blood clot.  Here are ways to get exercise on your vacation.