How to stay healthy on your next germ-filled flight

Don't get sick on the plane.

woman sneezing in airport

Sick passenger

You don't want to sit next to her on your flight.Depositphotos

Does it seem like you always get sick when you travel? You aren't alone. Packing a bunch of people in a confined airplane cabin during cold and flu season is a recipe for the sniffles. To avoiding sneezing your way through the holidays, take some precautions to stay healthy when you fly.

Most people blame recirculated air when they catch a cold after a flight. But in 2002, researchers found that this likely isn't the case. After surveying 1,100 passengers—half of whom traveled on planes with recirculated air; the other flyers used 100 percent fresh air—they found that nearly 20 percent of travelers developed a cold within a week of flying, whether they breathed recirculated air or not. In other words, those in-cabin HEPA filters seem to really do their job well.

Still, science has uncovered several factors that make you more likely to catch a bug when flying. So the next time you take off, keep these things in mind.

Environmental evils

When you board a plane, you’re entering an environment where you have limited control. You can’t expel that coughing passenger or set the temperature to a more comfortable level. But that doesn’t mean you’re entirely unable to adjust your surroundings.

  • Choose the window seat to minimize contact with others. You're more likely to get sick if you sit within one or two rows of a sick traveler, but you can't predict this in advance. In general, no matter where you end up, you'll want to avoid as much contact with other people as you can. One study, which modeled the behavior of passengers aboard a plane, found that the window seat provides the least contact with other people. In addition, the less often you get up and move, the less likely you are to come into contact with germ carriers.
  • Turn on your air vent. While you aren't likely to catch something from the recycled air, you may still be at risk from airborne pathogens hovering near you. So turn the air vent to low or medium and aim it to blow down into your lap. This will hopefully direct those germs away from your face.
  • Wipe down your tray table, armrest, and seat. Bad news: The airline does not clean your accommodations nearly as often as they should. Researchers have found that the seat pocket and armrests are some of the germiest spots on planes, though the in-flight entertainment screen, tray table, and other areas of your seat follow not far behind. To eradicate germs, carry a pack of wipes with you and clean the surfaces surrounding your seat after you board. Even if they aren't contaminated, they're probably pretty gross anyway.
  • Avoid in-flight magazines, blankets, and pillows. Like those seat surfaces, there's no guarantee these items have been cleaned recently. You're probably best off avoiding them altogether. If you tend to get chilly, just bring your own sweater.

Personal health precautions

On the ground, you should already rely on general good-health practices to stay well. These precautions become even more important while you're in the air.

  • Stay hydrated. Airplane air is rather dry, with a humidity level of about 20 percent (compared to 30 percent in the average home). This dry air will thicken the mucus that usually protects you from viruses and bacteria, making you more susceptible to infection. Bring a water bottle and keep that H2O flowing so your nasal passages remain moist.
  • Use hand sanitizer, even after washing your hands. In 2002, the Wall Street Journal famously found that airplane water is often contaminated with nasties. Since then, the EPA has demanded more stringent standards, but it looks like they haven't helped enough. To be safe, don't drink anything that doesn't come out of a can or bottle. After using the lavatory and washing your hands in the sink, rub some sanitizer on them.
  • Rest well, especially if you have a long flight. We all know a lack of sleep makes you more susceptible to infection. When you're traveling for long periods—like cross-country or overseas—you're probably depriving yourself of much-needed Z's. Make sure you get sufficient rest before and after your flight, especially if it's a long or late-night haul.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Many people forget that viruses spread not just when you touch an infected surface, but when you follow up by touching your eyes or mouth afterward. Stay cognizant of your hands and make sure you sanitize before you eat or rub your sleepy peepers.

After you land, don’t let down your guard. Remember, while your actual flight may make up the bulk of your travel, you’re also in close proximity to other travelers in the airport, taxis, and other parts of your day. So don’t get complacent once you’re off the plane.

Finally, if you do get sick, it isn't the end of the world. Stock up on the remedies that actually work and try to enjoy yourself anyway. You'll be spending time with your family—they have to love you whether or not your sniffling nose looks like a cherry.