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Pathogens on a Plane: How to Avoid Getting Sick When You Fly

By Sara Butler

Airplane Health Hacks

You brought a lot of things back from your vacation -- a new hat, some great memories, a lousy T-shirt for your kid, and a hacking cough. According to the American Medical Association, about 20 percent of people develop symptoms of respiratory infection within a week of flying. How does this happen? Well, it’s not simply that you’re crammed into a metal tube with hundreds of other people for hours at a time -- it’s way more complicated than that! Luckily, there are ways to avoid falling ill after travel so you can enjoy your vacation memories without cringing (and coughing).

What’s to Blame?

Many people think that the recycled air in planes is to blame for getting sick after flying, but researchers haven’t found this to be the case. Studies have determined there’s no difference in the rate people get sick based on whether they breathed fresh or recirculated air in a plane. The Federal Aviation Administration says the HEPA filters on planes are doing their jobs quite effectively. There goes that theory.

The real culprit is humidity. Yes, humidity.

Airplanes are dry places -- and they dry you up when you’re in them for long periods of time. When you travel at high altitudes in a plane, the relative humidity is only about 11 percent. This compromises your body’s first defense against illness, your mucous membranes.

A thin layer of mucus coats your nose and throat. It’s there to work as a protective system that traps bacteria and viruses, then flushes them from your body by either ejecting them (ah-choo!) or swallowing them where they perish in your stomach acid. I like to imagine a scene akin to the gaping maw of the Sarlacc on Tatooine in Return of the Jedi. But I digress.

Humidity is your true enemy on a plane, but there are other things to also look out for. Don’t sweat it too much, though, because we’ve got some quick and easy tips to help you stay healthy so you’ll bring a little less baggage back from your vacation.

Controlling Your Environment

You can’t control whether the guy sitting behind you removes his shoes on the flight or if that person with the sniffles gets seated next to you, but you can exert a little control over your environment in a plane. To help reduce your risk of getting sick you should:

  • Choose a window seat - If it’s possible, go for a window seat. This helps minimize the contact you have with other people, especially if you try to stay seated throughout the flight.
  • Turn your air vent up - The air in the cabin is your friend, not your foe, so use it to help you avoid illness. Turn your air vent on to medium and aim it at your lap to help direct the germs that are in the air away from your face.
  • Wipe it down - Yes, you should be that person on a flight. While the humidity is the biggest factor to fight against, so are all the really dirty places you come into contact with on a plane. Airlines don’t clean certain places on a plane as often as they should, such as the seat, your armrest, and your tray table. Wipe those down when you get on a plane with some wipes comprised of at least 60 percent alcohol. Even if they aren’t carrying a virus, they’re probably kind of gross anyway.
  • Just say no to in-flight pillows and blankets - It’s very nice of the airline to offer those cozy blankets and pillows to you for long haul flights, but you’re better off declining. Who knows the last time they were cleaned?

Personal Precautions

You should do what you can to control your environment, but the most influence you have is with your own personal health habits. To stay healthy in the air and on the ground you should:

  • Make hydration a priority - Fight back against the dry desert that is your plane by making sure to drink plenty of water. Bring your own bottle of water and sip throughout the flight to help keep your mucous membranes supple. This can help to protect you against germs and lower your chances of getting sick after the flight.
  • Wash your hands - Whether you’re in a plane or your feet are firmly planted on the ground, washing your hands thoroughly and often is a great way to avoid getting sick. But when you go on a plane you may want to stock up on hand sanitizer, using it after you wash your hands to add an extra layer of protection. Even though the air in a plane may not be filled with germs, the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t found the same thing to be true about airplane water.
  • Rest up - Not getting enough sleep has a big impact on your body’s ability to fight infection, so make sleep a priority. This is especially true if you’re flying overseas or cross-country since you’re probably not going to get sufficient rest on a plane. Before and after your flight, rest.
  • Take Vitamin C and a multivitamin - Because an airline presents an inhospitable environment, go into battle fully loaded with Vitamin C and a multivitamin to help ensure your body is at its germ-fighting healthiest.

If you do get sick after the flight, it’s certainly not the end of the world. Make sure to visit the chiropractors at The Joint Chiropractic regularly to help keep your immune system functioning well and your body working optimally; hopefully, the only thing you’ll be bringing back from your vacation is a nice tan.

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