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How to Survive Germs on Airplanes

Germs fly everywhere, logging more frequent flyer miles than the most on-the-go of business travelers.  And during the holiday season, there are few more disturbing thoughts for travelers than germs on the loose at 30,000 feet. There are few places on Earth where bacteria and illness are transmitted faster than a contained airplane cabin. The friendly skies can quickly become the flu skies if travelers don’t take personal safeguards against germs. A Journal Environmental Health Research report suggested travelers may be up to 100 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane than in their normal day-to-day life. And with the ebola virus (transmitted through contact with contaminated blood) alarmingly spreading through numerous countries throughout the world in 2014, unprepared air travelers are at substantial risk of acquiring harmful viruses when flying.

Smart flying practices actually begin before you board. Strong immune systems are the No. 1 defense for fighting off germs. Studies show that travelers get a good night’s sleep before traveling are less likely to get infections than travelers who are sleep-deprived. Also, don’t forget the high-quality H2O. Staying hydrated while traveling keeps your respiratory tract moist and your ski from getting dry and cracked, which offers more protection against germs in the dry air of airplane cabins. Eating fruits and vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants, when traveling can also strengthen your immune system.

In airports and on airplanes, germs reside almost everywhere, from water glasses to seat cushions to tray tables to in-flight entertainment clickers. Here are hot Germ Zones to handle with extreme care:

The X-Ray Line

At the airport, a traveler’s first line of germ defense is wearing socks in the X-ray line. Transportation Security Administration X-ray lines can be contagion zones, where fliers must take off their shoes and send them through the X-Ray machine. Many travelers don’t wear socks, and sweaty feet on dirty airport floors can lead to bacterial and fungal infections.

Water, Coffee, Tea

The airplane drink order seems harmless enough. The fasten-seat-belt sign goes off and friendly flight attendants stop by your seat offering water, ice tea or coffee. But airplane water has been found in numerous cases to contain E.coli, one of the leading causes of food poisoning in the United States. Coffee and tea are brewed on board planes and often don’t reach temperatures hot enough to kill E.coli. The 2011 EPA Aircraft Drinking Water Rule, which instituted more stringent disinfection and inspection rules on water, greatly helped reduce the presence of E.coli in airport water.

But travelers flying under the weather should bring their own water bottles on the plane.

The Seat Cushion

Travelers should be aware that many people have sat in their exact same seat. Though clothes provide a germ barrier between you and the cushion, avoid touching the fabric with your bare hands. If your hands do come in contact with seat cushion fabric, hand-washing or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer will eliminate most germs you come in contact with.

The Tray Table

Most American commercial planes are in the air most of the day, meaning busy flight crews don’t always have time to wipe down tray tables between flights. Fliers use tray tables for eating, drinking, reading and even resting, making them heavy germ and virus centers. The superbug Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) is a lethal potential health hazard lying on unkept tables. It is fatal once contracted and kills an estimated 20,000 Americans annually. Numerous studies of airplane tray tables – including a 2007 study by University of Arizona researcher Jonathan Sexton of three major airliners — have found a majority of airline tray tables test positive for MRSA.

Wiping down trays with alcohol-based hand or disinfectant wipes before use is a great way to wipe away any lingering germs. Protect any cuts you may have on exposed skins with Band-Aids to prevent an MSRA infection.

The Seat Pocket

Described by some experts as a petri dish of health threats, cold and influenza A, B and C viruses love to hang out in seat pockets. Fliers have reported finding anything from mushy french fries to old gum to fingernail clippings. And cold and influenza viruses can live for up to 48 hours and longer on fabric and tissues. Bringing a small, easily accessible carry-on bag for personal items can eliminate the possibility of encountering any mysterious health hazard the seat pocket may be housing.

If you must use a seat pocket to store personal items during the flight, keep items like phones, books and magazines near the top of the seatback pocket to avoid the possibility of them mingling with food crumbs, dirty tissues or other germy-substances that may be lingering at the bottom.

The Airplane Lavatory

Fliers should approach an airplane bathroom like they would a public restroom. The place is the Grand Central Station of health threats and contagious bacteria. Hundreds of fliers will use the same airplane bathroom daily. The Center for Disease Controls has cited the airplane bathroom as a major threat zone for the spread of disease, including during recent world health epidemics like the H1N1 flu and SARS crises. A 2011 New York Times story detailed one study by University of Arizona professor Charles P. Gerba that found 30 percent of Airplane bathroom sinks, flush handles and faucet handles swabbed tested positive for E.coli.

Protect yourself by limiting your contact with surfaces and use paper towels or shirt sleeves to turn on the faucet and open the restroom door. Fliers should use even more caution on international flights where there is a greater chance of coming into contact with viruses their immune systems aren’t used to. Use hand sanitizer after using airplane bathrooms.

The one product no flier should ever board without: Hand sanitizer. For when traveling the sometimes sickly skies, germ awareness, precautions and self defense practices are our best means of reaching our destination safely and virus-free.


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