Healthy Air Travel Tips
You love to travel, but nothing can ruin a trip faster than getting sick.
We’ve heard from travelers in the past that they often get sick after flying in an airplane, especially during the cold and flu season. And some studies have confirmed this to be true:
- A Journal of Environmental Health Research study found that colds could be 100 times more likely to be caught on a plane than during a normal day on the ground.
- A Wall Street Journal study of 1,100 passengers flying from San Francisco to Denver found that 1 in 5 travelers developed a cold within 2 weeks.
- A University of Alabama study found that some germs can stay up to 7 days on a plane.
The COVID pandemic has raised everyone’s concern about the risk of getting COVID from air travel. However, not everyone gets sick after flying, and there are some practical steps you can take to reduce your risk of getting sick. The 3 primary areas of risk for sickness after flying in a plane are 1) internal airplane surfaces, 2) other passengers, and 3) your personal hygiene practices. Use these tips for staying healthy while flying:
Internal Airplane Surfaces
What are typical airline cleaning practices?
During the COVID pandemic, airlines increased the thoroughness and frequency of their airplane cleaning process. Many of them performed a deep clean of each plane every night. Prior to the COVID pandemic, deep cleanings were occurring every 30 – 100 days, depending on maintenance down times. This means that, during the COVID pandemic, many surfaces inside airplanes would be clean before the first flight of the day. In between flights, the airline stewards generally pick up trash and straighten out the cabin, but do not clean surfaces. As the COVID pandemic declines, airlines may be inclined to reduce their cleaning practices.
Where are the dirty spots on a plane?
Your seat is one of the dirtiest spots on an airplane, especially the headrest and seat belt. The tray table is the next dirtiest spot, followed by the seat pocket in front of you, entertainment devices, the air vent, the overhead compartment latch, and the floor. Other dirty surfaces away from your seat are the bathroom and the pillows and blankets provided by the airline.
How can I avoid the dirty spots on a plane?
Here are some tips for reducing the risk of getting sick from internal airplane surfaces:
Wipe them: Although not touching any surfaces on a plane is the healthiest way to go, it’s usually not realistic. So, you’ll want to wipe off the dirty spots on and near your seat with sanitizing wipes. Some airlines give out alcohol-based disinfectant wipes to passengers as they board. However, it’s best to bring your own sanitizing wipes, whether a small purchased packet or in a Ziploc bag. That way you can also wipe down bathroom surfaces if you must use it. After you wipe down the surfaces, use hand sanitizer on your hands.
Headrest: Cover the headrest with a coat, sweatshirt, or blanket. Make sure it rests barely over the top of the headrest and not dangling in the person’s space behind you or blocking their tray table.
Tray table: Wipe down the tray table well. You could also buy a tray table cover, such as TrayGuard, which is an antimicrobial slipcover made of the same materials used in FDA-approved and NIOSH-approved face masks.
Seat pocket: Don’t use it. Many people touch the airline magazine and put trash in it. The seat pocket is rarely cleaned, so it’s likely to be full of germs. And it’s hard to remove all the germs in it with a sanitizing wipe. Bring your own entertainment and leave the seat pocket alone.
Overhead bin latch: After opening or closing the overhead compartment, use sanitizer on your hands, preferably before grabbing your bag. Better yet, let other people open the compartment, then all you need to touch is your own bag.
Bathroom: If you’re on a short flight, use the bathroom before your flight and try to avoid using the airplane bathroom. If it can’t be avoided, use a paper towel when touching the flush button, faucet, or other surfaces in the bathroom. You will have to touch the bathroom door latch, so use hand sanitizer when you return to your seat before touching anything else.
Floor: It’s best to store your carry-on bags in overhead bins and not on the floor by your feet. Shoes are a haven for germs, so your bags will pick up germs from your own feet and from the feet of prior passengers.
Pillow and blanket: Some airlines offer pillows and blankets for nighttime and very long flights. Prior to the COVID pandemic, it was reported that airplane-provided blankets and pillows were not washed in between flights. Without knowing if the airline pillows and blankets have been used since they were last washed, it’s best to bring your own pillow and blanket if you need them.
Choose a window seat: Window seats are preferred because they experience less traffic than aisle or middle seats. A lot of traffic passes by the aisle seats, which puts you in closer proximity to someone who may be ill. A window seat also allows you to turn away and bury your face if someone next to you is coughing or sneezing. However, if you are seated next to someone who appears ill, you may want to ask to move to a different seat if one is available.
Keep your air vent open: Experts consider the air on an airplane to be cleaner than most office buildings. The high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters found on planes remove at least 99.97% of any airborne viruses and bacteria. That air is also getting refreshed about 20 times per hour. An office only gets refreshed about 10 times.
However, crowded flights make social distancing difficult. Some research indicates that using the overhead air vent on medium speed, directed straight downward toward your chest or feet, can prevent airborne germs from getting close to you.
Personal Hygiene Practices
Avoid a dry nose: Onboard air humidity is about 15%, whereas we’re used to between 30% and 60% humidity on land. The very low humidity of the cabin air can dry out the mucous membranes of your nose and airways. When these tissues dry out, they are much more susceptible to viruses and bacteria.
Use a non-medicated sinus spray or nasal mist to help your nasal passages stay moist. You could also rub a little petroleum jelly inside each nostril with a cotton swab or tissue. If you normally take medication to dry out your sinuses, you may want to hold off the day of or day before your flight (if you can).
Clean hands: Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds when possible, as that’s more effective at killing certain germs than hand sanitizer. The CDC suggests that if soap and water aren’t available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Hand sanitizers with 60%-95% alcohol are more effective at preventing you from getting sick and spreading your germs to others. That is why we talk about the importance of hand sanitizer when you travel in the free “Top Three Risks When You Travel” guide (Get it free here.)
Hand sanitizer comes in small sizes, and you’re now allowed up to a 12-ounce bottle of sanitizer in carry-on luggage. You can even get sanitizing wipes to carry in your bag. Or you can purchase hand sanitizers that easily “clip on” to a bag strap or belt loop so you’ll always have it with you. They are refillable, so once you have one on your bag, you won’t need to throw it out and buy another one.
For which brand to buy, it’s usually best to stick with the classics, like Purell, or a pack of gentle alcohol-free Germ-X wipes with moisturizing Vitamin E. CareTouch makes alcohol-free, fragrance-free wipes that are gentle enough for young children and have soothing Vitamin E and aloe. Trip Wipes are individually-wrapped towelettes designed specifically for travelers with a refreshing citrus scent.
If you’re concerned about putting chemicals on your skin, consider PlaneAire, which is a travel mist made of only essential oils. The specific blend of oils in this product claims to eliminate nearly 100% of bacteria on surfaces. It isn’t actually intended for use on your skin, but is much gentler than hand sanitizer.
Avoid touching your face: You are mostly likely to get sick from germs entering your eyes or nose. This has been especially true with COVID-19. Of course, germs can enter your body through your mouth as well. So, doctors tell us that we should avoid touching our face, but that is hard for many people. What’s the answer?
One option is to try wearing gloves. Dr. Julie Fischer, a research associate professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University recently commented, “Gloves are useful in that they remind people not to touch their own noses and mouth … when you’re wearing gloves, you become hyper-conscious of that. But the best protection for individuals is to be very careful about handwashing.”
Wearing glasses can help to keep you from touching your eyes. Wearing a sleep mask over your eyes on a long flight can help also. However, you should be careful where you put your sleep mask when you’re not using it. Don’t set it down on a seat or tray table. Instead, keep it in your carry-on bag.
Wear a mask: During the COVID pandemic, most airlines require masks while traveling. However, even when masks aren’t required, wearing one when flying can provide additional protection from getting sick. A mask will also keep you from touching your nose and mouth with your hands.
According to the CDC, face masks are most effective when worn by the person who is sick. It helps prevent any shedding virus particles from spreading to others. It’s not foolproof, but it helps. And it can certainly block some particles from easily getting into your mouth or nose.
Travel with your medicine: Avoid packing medicine in your checked luggage in case you need it during the flight, or your luggage gets lost or delayed. Even if you’re traveling to a destination where you think the medication is easily accessible, you’ll save time and money (and stress) by carrying it on board.
Consider any prescription medications you take, as well as over-the-counter items you may need, such as pain relievers, indigestion tablets or vitamins. If you start to feel unwell on the plane, these medications can help manage your symptoms and keep you comfortable.
Stay hydrated: Another way to keep your nose and airways from drying out is to stay hydrated. You can start by being properly hydrated before leaving for your trip. Salty foods can speed up dehydration, so try to avoid eating salty foods for a few days before you leave.
It’s best to drink 8 ounces of water per hour that you’re in the air to maintain your hydration. If you know your airline serves water poured in cups, instead of in mini unopened bottles, buy a bottle of water in the airport before you board. It’s been reported that airplane water can carry a ton of bacteria and may not be safe to drink. If you want to avoid single-use plastic, consider getting a filtered water bottle, such as the Astrea One water bottle.
Most airports now have water bottle filling stations where you can fill up your bottle for free. However, some airports have temporarily closed refillable water stations and drinking fountains, and some airlines are not accommodating multiple requests for water inflight.
On long international flights, a refillable water bottle can be useful in getting more water. You can probably take your bottle to the galley at the back of the plane and ask if they will fill it up. It’s much easier than requesting a 3-ounce cup of water many times during a flight.
Keep in mind that alcohol and caffeine will dehydrate you even more, so save the cocktails and coffee for your destination. In place of coffee, you could drink tea. If you don’t like airline tea, you could bring your own bag and ask for hot water.
Replenish your electrolytes: Electrolytes keep your body healthier and reduce your risk of getting sick. According to Healthline, a health and wellness advice website, electrolytes are necessary for controlling blood pressure, regulating fluid balance, helping muscles contract and maintaining appropriate pH levels in the blood. Electrolyte waters are usually enhanced with minerals such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and chloride, all of which help your body function properly. To replenish your electrolytes while flying, simply bring a packet of dissolvable electrolytes for your water or buy a vitamin drink at the airport.
Prepare your body: Build up your body’s immune system before your flight. Take Vitamin C, Zinc supplements, Airborne and some probiotics a few days or weeks before you leave. Studies have shown that people under stress who take 1,000 mg of Vitamin C per day are less likely to fall ill with viral infections. And travel can be stressful. Getting plenty of sleep ahead of your flight is one of the best things you can do to make sure your immune system is performing at its peak, especially the night before you leave.
Clean your cell phone: Your cell phone can gather germs, even if they’re mostly from your own hands. It’s good to wipe down your cell phone often, but be careful not to get any sanitizer or other liquid in the gaps between the case and buttons. One way to do that is to use a product like PhoneSoap, which is a portable sanitizer that eliminates bacteria on your phone using ultraviolet rays.
Wear shoes that are easy to clean: You’ll want to sanitize your shoes when you return from your trip, so wear shoes made of materials that are easier to wipe down. Wear sandals, rain boots or combat boots instead of sneakers, suede, or fabric shoes.
Staying Healthy While Flying
Staying healthy while flying has never been more important. Though many of the preventative measures in place to curb the coronavirus may help you from contracting the flu or other common illnesses, travelers need to be more cognizant of their health than ever. That means remembering even the most basic steps to stop the spread of germs. Among the other tips mentioned above, the CDC urges people to avoid contact with people who are sick and stay home and away from others if you yourself are feeling under the weather.
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Lastly, always remember travel insurance. Not only does it include “flight insurance” benefits, but for the $1 to $2 a day, it will help you if you do get sick and need to see a doctor. Overseas, most domestic plans are not going to cover you, and if you call the toll free 24/7 number on the back of your travel insurance card, they can also direct you to a top-rated hospital (or clinic) and most even help translate for you if needed! See our recommended travel plans (or all our travel plans) at https://www.gninsurance.com/travel/.