How to Avoid Getting Sick at 30,000 Feet

June 19, 2017 Phillip Cecchini, MD


Airlines have gotten a bad rap recently. We’ve all read about the manhandling of customers, but perhaps even more concerning are all those stories of germ-infested aircraft.

“It seems that every day we’re told what not to touch or use on an airplane,” says Phillip Cecchini, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at Mission Heritage Medical Group. “But the fact remains that most of us fly without getting horribly ill. So, it makes sense to take precautions, but not become overly fearful. If you’re a careful traveler, you can make the most of the ride and still be healthy when you land.”

Here are a few tips from the health & travel experts:

Wipe off those tray tables – It’s not airport or airplane bathrooms that are the germiest, it’s those tray tables that drop down in front of you. Flight attendants report witnessing passengers doing everything from changing dirty diapers to resting their heads and depositing chewed gum on them. Your best bet is to use a disinfectant wipe to wipe down the surface. Avoid touching them too much, which includes not using them to rest your hands while doing a crossword puzzle, working on a laptop or reading a magazine. And never eat directly off the tray table – use the tray supplied with your meal.

Avoid seat pockets – Just like with the tray tables, people stuff some rather awful items into these seemingly innocuous receptacles. Your best bet is to avoid them altogether. That goes for the magazines stuffed inside them. And never store opened food items you intend to eat inside an airline seat pocket.

Arm yourself in the bathrooms – They’re not as bad as the tray tables, but you should also take a few preventive measures if you must use them. Use disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer and try not come into direct contact with the faucet or toilet seat cover. Be sure to close the lid before flushing and never, ever drink the water from the tap. In fact, most airplane bathrooms have signs already warning you against that one.

Bring your own pillow – You really don’t know how well pillows and blankets have been cleaned, so it’s better to bring your own. Chances are yours are more comfortable and less scratchy that the ones supplied by the airline anyway.

Be alert to all those buttons – There are countless buttons and gadgets that others have touched, including seat belt buckles, lavatory locks and touch screens. If at all possible, wipe these down with sanitizer or use a tissue when you can before touching them. But know that none are as bad as the aforementioned tray table.

Protect yourself from sick passengers – If you can’t ask to be moved away from someone who has the flu or obvious infectious disease, avoid putting your hands to your mouth or nose during the flight. Saline nasal spray or Neti pots can be helpful in also keeping you protected. Saline spray moisturizes your nose in dry plane air, which can help you resist infection. Rinsing your nose with salt water from a Neti pot can help rinse out germs in your nose. Use them both before and after the flight.

Also note that while you’re wiping and disinfecting, there are other health hazards that have nothing to do with germs and everything to do with how you act and what you drink, especially on long haul flights.

The worst of the problems is deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or blood clots, which form in the legs and work their way into the heart or lungs. If you remain seated in a vertical position too long, normal blood circulation can be restricted, which leads to swelling in the lower legs and increases the blood’s tendency to form clots. Therefore, it’s imperative that you get out of your seat and walk around every few hours. Also, wear loose clothing, avoid crossing your legs, and, when you can’t get out of your chair, move your legs as frequently as possible.

Additionally, tea, coffee and alcohol only worsen the problem by causing dehydration, which makes blood stickier and more likely to clot. Always hydrate yourself during long flights.

“Remember, with airplanes, you’re not on them for the journey but the destination. If you’re flying as a means to experience new places, reunite with friends and family, or enjoy a much-needed vacation, you’re ultimately doing something that will benefit you both physically and emotionally,” says Dr. Cecchini. “Just add a few precautions while in the air and enjoy your travels.”

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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