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December 17, 2018

Here's how to avoid getting sick during your holiday flight

An infectious disease doctor offers tips to travelers

Prevention Illness
Airplane_interior_unsplash Gerrie van der Walt/

Passengers sit inside an airplane.

Some 6.7 million Americans are expected to hop on an airplane during this holiday season – the highest amount in 15 years, according to AAA.

Invariably, a significant chunk of them will be carrying common airborne illnesses along with their luggage. For many travelers, the fear of getting sick becomes very real the moment their neighbor in the middle seat begins coughing uncontrollably.

"When you're flying, you're in close contact with a bunch of people and you don't have the ability to necessarily get away from people who are sick, or keep your distance from people who are sneezing or coughing," said Dr. Ebbing Lautenbach.

Lautenbach, an infectious disease expert at Penn Medicine, offered travelers tips on the ways to avoid coming down with a common cold or, worse yet, influenza.


Passengers should wash their hands meticulously, Lautenbach said.

The common cold and, to a lesser extent, the flu can be spread by touching contaminated surfaces. (They also are spread through the air.) And airports and airplanes require passengers to contact all sorts of surfaces.

Filthy bins are recyled at airport security. Thousand of people touch handrails on escalators and moving walkways. And who knows the last time the tray table was wiped clean?

"One of the ways that the flu is spread frequently – it gets on a surface," Lautenbach said. "You contaminate your hand and then you touch your eyes, your nose and then you inoculate yourself that way."

Assume that any surface on an airplane is contaminated, Lautenbach said. Because it's not always easy to get to a bathroom on an airplane, he suggested passengers carry an alcohol-based hand rub.

"You can't wash your hands too frequently," Lautenbach said. "That's a good thing to do."


The air being pumped into an airplane is far cleaner than many passengers might realize.

"I think that's probably less of an issue, because the air that's recycled is filtered," Lautenbach said. "It removes most of the contaminants and bacteria from the air, and some viruses. It's more the fact that people are in very close quarters."

And, according to Gizmodo, much of that air isn't actually recycled. Fresh air is drawn into the cabin from outside the plane, passed through filters and then mixed with recirculated cabin air, which eventually gets released outside. That process plays out about 20 times per hour – more frequently than the average office building.

If a passenger gets sick from a flight, the recycled air quality is probably not to blame.

"It's more important – beyond the recycled air – just the fact that there are a lot of people in close spaces," Lautenbach said. "Your ability to get away from those people isn't really there."


As the holidays approach, Lautenbach advised people to maintain healthy habits. Get plenty of sleep. Stay physically active. And drink plenty of fluids.

"Around the holidays, especially if you're traveling, often times you're sleep-deprived," Lautenbach said. "You're stressed. You're not drinking enough fluids. There are a lot of things that conspire around the holidays to get you sick."

And they don't all involve the airplane.


There's no better way to prevent the flu than getting vaccinated.

"Even if you get the flu," Lautenbach said, "It will be much less severe."

But he advised people to get their flu shots soon. The peak of flu season is probably not too far off.

"That's the best way to prevent the flu," Lautenbach said. "Right now, flu activity in the United States is fairly low. But it will probably continue to increase in the month of January, as it usually does."


No one wants to be sick, particularly at the holidays.

Passengers who are ill should take precautions to prevent fellow passengers from acquiring the same illness.

"If you are sick, covering your mouth and your nose – ideally with a tissue – or at least sneezing into your elbow is a good way not to spread it to people," Lautenbach said.

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