For many people, two circumstances can almost guarantee a cold: flights and holidays.
Combine these two, and you have a perfect recipe for stuffy heads, sneezing, sore throats, and all the other accouterments of illness.
What’s worse, October through December is prime flu season. More than a simple inconvenience, the flu is downright dangerous, and you need to protect yourself to avoid getting sick.
If at a holiday dinner you notice that Aunt Selma blows her nose after every bite, or that Cousin Andy looks a little green around the gills, simple avoidance is a good strategy.
On a plane, however, there’s no escape. Instead, you’ve got to confront the likelihood of illness head-on.
To avoid getting sick, you’ll need both precautionary measures and a strategy for the flight itself.
Post-Flight Illness Explained
If the sound of someone coughing on a plane makes your stomach turn, it should. Believe it or not, travel via air makes you 100 times more likely to come down with an illness.
The close quarters of a flight provide a partial explanation for this. While on a plane, you are in very close proximity to your fellow man. Mere inches separate you from your aisle mates, a circumstance that makes it hard to avoid physical contact, much less the spray from an errant sneeze.
In the same study that revealed the increased likelihood of post-flight illness, the Journal of Environmental Health Research also identified possible causes for this phenomenon.
While proximity surely counts for a lot, researchers identified low humidity as the chief culprit. A commercial airliner flies at an altitude of 30,000 to 35,000 feet. At this height, moisture in the air becomes pretty scarce, and humidity hovers at 10 percent or less.
In terms of illness prevention, humidity is pretty important. After all, your natural defense against illness is your mucociliary clearance system. This system, comprised of the mucus in your nose and throat, captures germs and prevents them from making you sick. In environments with low humidity, this system dries up and becomes ineffective.
Unfortunately, you cannot cary a humidifier onto a plane. What you can do, however, is keep yourself clean, avoid certain areas, and take care of yourself before and during the flight.
Keep Clean to Avoid Getting Sick
Elementary schools place a big emphasis on hand-washing, and for good reason. The close quarters of the classroom, combined with shared toys and children’s proclivity for physical play, make early childhood and adolescence a hotbed of illness.
Though you probably won’t wrestle or play tag with anyone on a plane, hand washing remains an excellent deterrent to illness.
Your hands are consistently the first contact point of flu and cold germs. After you touch a contaminated armrest, germs can easily travel from your hands to your face when you rub your eyes, or from your fork to your mouth.
Germs can survive for hours on objects, surfaces, or your skin, so make it a habit to wash your hands frequently. At the very least, do so before you eat and immediately after disembarking from the plane.
You can greatly improve your cleanliness through the avoidance of germs altogether.
To accomplish this, many flyers utilize disposable face masks. If wearing a mask sounds unappealing, you can also avoid germs through your seating assignment.
Travelers seated in the aisle have much greater exposure to germs, thanks to their proximity to other passengers and movement up and down the aisle. This makes window seats valuable for reasons other than enjoying the scenery.
Avoid Certain Areas
In addition to limiting your exposure to other passengers, you should also strive to avoid certain areas and parts of the plane.
For example, if you have a short flight, try and use the restroom beforehand in the terminal. On the plane, so many people share the same restroom that the toilet seat, sink, and flush handles become hotbeds for germs.
If you must use the plane’s restroom, make sure to employ a paper towel to protect your hand when touching these areas.
Other parts of the plane are just as susceptible to germ infestation.
In fact, five specific surfaces in the plane can adequately compete with the toilet seat for the title of “filthiest”.
These areas, identified through a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation study, are the seat belts, washroom handles, seat pockets, headrests, and tray tables.
Any of these can harbor flu germs for up to 24 hours. If you think you’ll need the tray table, carry some sanitary wipes to give it a quick cleaning. If you have sanitary wipes, you can additionally use them to clean the overhead vents and seat belt buckles.
Also, take care to not store items in the setback pocket, as harried airline employees likely won’t clean it properly.
Take Care of Yourself
Aside from cleanliness and awareness of contaminated areas during the flight, you can also practice precaution beforehand to avoid getting sick on a plane.
First and foremost, make sure to stay hydrated. If you drink plenty of water before and during your flight, it will help offset the effects of the plane’s low humidity. To maintain hydration, you should try and consume at least 8 ounces of water for every hour you’ll spend in the plane.
Along these lines, avoid the consumption of alcohol or caffeine during the flight, as these will only dehydrate you further.
Taking some vitamins may represent another valuable pre-flight strategy to reduce the severity and duration of illness. Though medically unproven, vitamins have the support of many frequent flyers. Vitamin C, in particular, if taken in large doses, may help prevent colds. Brands such as Airborne and Emergen-C actively cater to this belief, and are available at most grocery stores.
At the very least, should the plane undergo an emergency landing on a deserted island, you’ll be the last passenger to succumb to scurvy.
As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This piece of wisdom can apply directly to your effort to avoid getting sick on a plane. Next time you need to travel, whether it’s for business, pleasure, or familial obligation, drink your water, take your vitamins, and keep your hands clean. Do all of this, and you’ll surely emerge from the cabin no worse for the wear.