Where Germs Lurk on Airplanes—and 10 Ways to Keep from Getting Sick

Wednesday Aug 14 | BY |
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Do you need to go this far to protect yourself from illness while flying?

In June 2013, American Airlines announced plans to add even more seats to its airplanes, cramming passengers into an even smaller space than they already have.

The airlines stated it needed to make the change to raise revenue after its merger with U.S. Airways. Regardless of the reason, it’s not good news for passengers. Besides making travel even more uncomfortable, it puts us closer together, which increases the risk of contracting germs.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that there is very little risk of any communicable disease being transmitted on board an aircraft. They go on, however, to state that transmission of infection “may occur between passengers who are seated in the same area of an aircraft, usually as a result of the infected individual coughing or sneezing or by touch….”

Microbiologist Karen Deiss of Armstrong Forensic Laboratory in Arlington, randomly swabbed 10 surfaces on two planes, and found numerous bacteria lurking pretty much everywhere, including:

  • Klebsiella, a stringy, mucus-like bacteria that causes respiratory, urinary, and wound infections, was found on a seat tray table
  • Enterobacter asburiae, which can cause an array of diseases including lower respiratory infections, urinary tract infections, skin infections and soft tissue infections, was found inside the seat pocket

Dr. Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona has collected more than 100 samples from planes in the last six years, and found viruses like influenza, MRSA, and diarrhea. In 2007, he found four out of six tray tables tested positive for the superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. In addition, norovirus, the highly contagious group of viruses that can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and cramping, was found on one tray. Most of the bathrooms had E. coli, and thirty percent of sinks, flush handles, and faucet handles had E.coli.

Gerba stated airplanes are not cleaned enough: “There is no policy for cleaning or disinfecting. There are no recommendations by the health department.”

Even the CDC states on its website, “As with other close contact environments, these settings may facilitate the transmission of influenza viruses from person to person or through contact with contaminated environmental surfaces.”

How to Stay Well

Though coming into contact with bacteria and viruses is normal in our world, we’re really in a packed petri dish on airplanes. By the way—it’s not the air that makes us sick most of the time, it’s contact with surfaces. So you don’t need a facemask, unless you want to use it to help remind you not to touch your face. To protect yourself and cut down on your chances of getting sick, try these tips:

  1. Keep your immune system strong. This is probably the most important thing you can do. Keep up your defenses with a healthy diet, regular exercise, and plenty of sleep. About a week before going on your trip, load up on plant-based antioxidants like green tea, resveratrol, and quercetin, and then add in some vitamin C. Other immune-boosting herbs include Echinacea, ginger, goldenseal, and garlic. Check our previous post for eight foods that will also boost the immune system, or watch this video for some tips from Dr. Williams.
  2. Go to the bathroom in the airport and wash your hands. If you can avoid using the airplane restroom, which is teeming with germs, you’ll cut back on your exposure. The restrooms are rarely sanitized between flights, so they’re usually host to hundreds of passengers before cleaning. If the flight is short enough, go to the bathroom before you board, then wash your hands thoroughly with warm soap and water.
  3. Carry disinfectant wipes. You may get some strange looks from other passengers, but if it keeps you from getting sick, it’s worth it. Especially if you’re planning on eating while flying, wipe down your tray table, cushions, armrests, seatbelt buckles, and windows. If you need to use the restroom, wash your hands thoroughly before returning to your seat. You can also carry a travel-sized hand sanitizer to use on the plane and in the airport, or a small bottle (under the legally allowed 3 ounces) of hydrogen peroxide, which also works great for killing germs.
  4. Protect your hands. Wear gloves if you like, or use a tissue or handkerchief to protect your hands when opening the overhead compartment, for instance, or when touching other areas you haven’t sanitized.
  5. Don’t touch your face. Touching your eyes, nose, and mouth transmits germs from your hands inside your body.
  6. Try to sit near the front. Most commercial aircraft provide better airflow in the front of the plane. In addition, think twice about the aisle seats. People touch them more often to stabilize themselves while walking in the aisles. CDC surveys have discovered that people in the aisle seats were most likely to catch illnesses from other passengers. If you want the aisle, wipe down surfaces and avoid personal contact with passers-by.
  7. Avoid coffee and tea. EPA monitoring shows that airplane water isn’t always clean—and coffee and tea are made from that water, not from bottled water. Boiling would remove pathogens, but the water used to make coffee and tea on an airplane is generally not heated enough to boil, and may still contain germs.
  8. Take your own snacks. Airplane food is typically filled with chemicals. Try healthy organic food bars or protein bars, raw food snacks, and protected fruit (that require you to peel) like bananas and Clementine oranges.
  9. Take your own pillows & blankets. Avoid using those that are stored on the plane. They’re not always cleaned or replaced between flights.
  10. Don’t read the magazines. Touched by hundreds of hands, they are a virtual biohazard. Remember others may not have washed their hands after using the restroom, or may have licked their fingers before turning pages. Bring your own reading material.

    How do you stay well while flying? Please share your tips.

    * * *

    Renna Ganga, “American Airlines to Cram More Seats Onto Aircraft,” Gadling, June 14, 2013, http://www.gadling.com/2013/06/14/american-airlines-to-cram-more-seats-onto-aircraft/.

    “Transmission of communicable diseases on aircraft,” WHO, http://www.who.int/ith/mode_of_travel/tcd_aircraft/en/index.html.

    “CBS II Investigates: How Dirty Is Your Plane?” CBS 11, November 19, 2012, http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2012/11/19/cbs-11-investigates-how-dirty-is-your-plane/.

    “CDC Guidance for Commercial Aircraft Operators: Seasonal Influenza,” CDC, http://www.cdc.gov/quarantine/travel-industry/air/guidance-seasonal-influenza-commerical-aircraft-operators.html.

    Elizabeth Cohen, “Five ways to avoid germs while traveling,” CNN, November 27, 2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/11/27/ep.avoid.germs.traveling/.

    Melissa Mayntz, “Airplane Virus Safety,” Love to Know, http://safety.lovetoknow.com/Airplane_Virus_Safety.

    Colleen M. Story

    Colleen M. Story

    Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

    Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com


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    1. Cynthia says:

      I already do a lot of these things; in fact, just flew on AA to Northern CA and we had to get off the plane and get back on at one point in Dallas before taxiing off. . . which reminded me that they indeed do not sanitize between flights. This time, I bought the anti bacterial wipes and wiped down the tray table, seat belt buckle, and anything else I would touch. Did not use the airplane restroom (they are SO disgusting anyway!) and made sure not to touch the magazines which everyone else was touching. Brought my own pillow and blanket for the flight. The ones that they distribute have been God knows where! I did not get sick at all this time, but I have several times before after flying.

      Thanks for the advice!! Dr. Oz also gives lots of very good advice about this, so at least a large majority of the population can hear it on television.

    2. Pat G. says:

      I got a bad virus after a few connecting plane rides from the east coast to SF 4 weeks ago on July 23. What started as a mild sore throat turned into a rough one followed by laryngitis, then swollen glands beneath and heat inside my ears, light fever, sinus pain, headache and then finally lung tightness. It was frightenly transitional as it got worse over a weeks time, which included hoarse voice that, with more talking, caused painful coughing in both throat and lungs. Aug. 4, I went to an ENT on a few hours notice. I learned a lot from him and was delighted that he gave me a simple Mucinex D script along with a microlide antibiotic (6 pills), since I’m allergic to penicillan. He heavily disuading me from using the antibiotic unless it was ABSOLUTELY necessary. He promotoed healthy food choices and downplayed allopathy. He’s also an allergy specialist and a JD and in my little ‘hood of Daly City!

      Today, my cough is now dry and my lungs feel tight when I attempt to breathe in deeply

      I was sure it was the magazine that got me good! It was crimped, torn…just overused!

      I now have your list in my planner of things to bring that include sanitizer and mask. I bought a wonderful roll of stuff from AA years ago for my confort which included a blow up neck pillow, eye mask, ear plugs, and blanket. That package is so worthwhile on long flights!

      Thanks for this article!

    3. Shirley J Dillard says:

      Yeah….always great to see a discussion on this topic. And how about the head rests on the seats of the airplane!!!!! Can ‘t you just visualize all the creepy crawley things on them….. I use regular tissue paper to drape over the headrest. I know I am one of those germaphobes people talk about. As soon as I find my seat I start cleaning…..the same is true for all hotel rooms. O well, I don’t wear a mask on the plane yet, but with my obsession with wellness…..I simply try to keep my immune system strong.

      Thanks for article. Keep writing!

    4. Liz Daniel says:

      Better not to go Barefoot either. Skin anywhere on the body can absorb germs; And do not accept any food stuffs from passengers, packaged or not.

    5. MYRA says:

      HI KEVIN:

      Excellent article.

      I travel east to west often in the US and abroad to Asia, South America and Europe.

      I travel with wipes and wipe down the trays and armrest.

      I bring my own sheet that I sit on and always travel with a plastic bag of therapeutic grade essential oil blends that have kept me well and take care of anything from toxic rooms, bedbugs and airborne viruses, etc. They are: Clear spray (a disinfectant that is great in musty hotel rooms), Conifer, Balsam Fir, Virus out and Immune up. I also carry moskito, peppermint, cinnamon and sinus out – all from Alchemist Oils. They are apart of my basic wellness travel kit.

      Balsam Fir can be added to a small amount of water and used to clean surfaces.

      In a pinch, you can often get a disinfectant towlette from a flight attendant.

      Great article!

    6. I take a tiny bottle of Young Living therapeutic essential oil of lavender, peppermint
      or Theives with me to inhale or put on a tissue to wipe surfaces. It sanitizes and helps me
      to remain healthy

    7. I use Young Living Thieves Spray, Thieves wipes, and Thieves Essential Oil all the time but especially when I am in contact with public areas, such as when flying. I put a drop of Thieves oil on the bottom of each foot night and morning all the time to build my immune system and protect from bacteria and viruses, etc. Thieves is an natural, 100% therapeutic grade essential oil blend of highly antiviral, antiseptic, antibacterial, anti-infectious essential oils.Thieves is a big part of my stay-healthy regimen.

    8. FaylinaMeir says:

      I do everything that this list tells me not to do in order to stay healthy and I was the only person on my recent trip who didn’t get sick! I’m a firm believer in not always washing your hands, don’t ultra sanitize your food, home, or life in general. I sat in the back of the plane, drank the water they gave me, used the bathroom a couple times, didn’t even wash my hands once because the sink wasn’t working. & got a blanket on every trip we went on.
      Only thing different I did was fast throughout my trip because my anxiety + food on a plane don’t end well.
      I will say this about germs – I used to wash hands, clean clean clean, sanitize etc all the time and was sick. Stopped doing it, rarely wash my hands now a little dirt doesn’t bother me and now I don’t get sick but MAYBE twice a year at most.
      that’s just my two cents!

    9. Judy says:

      Great article. I’m a bit of a germaphobe. But these are somethings I never thought of, like carrying disinfectant wipes. I meant isn’t that a bit much. But I suppose if you really don’t want to get sick you should do those things.

    10. Carlie says:

      When I travel, I douse a hanky with essential oil of lavender and inhale it often:
      it is an anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal.

    11. Phil says:

      I don’t fly too often, but when I do I try to make sure that I keep my hands clean by not touching too many things on the plane and having some wipes with me. Other than that, there isn’t that much that I do besides hoping nobody on the plane is coughing their lungs out.

    12. Sue says:

      Great article and like the insights here! I use Young Living Thieves Line when traveling (www.ylscents.com/sue), great for flying with. Thieves hand sanitizer (all natural and boost the immune system) with use, the spray/wipes for toilet seats, handles etc. Like the idea of bringing own pillow and blanket. I bring my own pillow but never thought blanket.

      Have an awesome day! MnSue 🙂

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