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How To Protect Yourself From Colds and the Flu While Traveling

Jan 15, 2020 07:30AM ● By Editor

By Ally Hirschlag of The Weather Channel - Posted:  January 15, 2020


During the winter months, traveling can offer the greatest respite from the colder, darker weather. Many people save their vacation days for this time for exactly that reason. No one wants Seasonal Affective Disorder to get the better of them, and what could be a more perfect antidote than a relaxing vacation, hopefully in the sun, and away from the everyday grind? That said, there's one good way to have your long-anticipated vacation ruined before you even leave your departing city — contract a virus. 

Your risk of that happening is the highest when you fly. For example, according to a study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research, colds may be 113 times more likely to be transmitted on an airplane than while traveling via ground transportation. Research points to the main cause for this being exceedingly low humidity in plane cabins (below 20%), which is a result of traveling at high altitudes. Pathogens, like those responsible for various colds and flus, seem to travel faster in dryer air, hence why they spread so rapidly in the winter. 

But that doesn't mean you'll automatically get sick if someone on your plane is sick. Here's what you need to know about cold and flu risks while traveling the friendly skies and what you can do to lower them. 

Avoiding the flu in the air

(Getty Images/ Johan Marengrd / EyeEm)

While recent research has shown that contracting the flu on an airplane is actually far less likely than previously thought, passengers still have an elevated risk simply by being in close proximity to other, potentially sick people. A study by Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology graduate students found that passengers who sit within three feet of a passenger with the flu, your odds of contracting the virus jump from 3% to about 80%. That means anyone sitting two seats in front, behind or on either side is in "the infection zone". 

If you realize you're in said zone after you've taken your seat and you're on a full flight, however, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself from getting sick.

Keep your nose and mouth covered with a medical-grade mask or a thick scarf.

Avoid touching shared surfaces, like armrests and tray tables.

Don't touch your face and wash your hands regularly.

The virus may be hiding in plain sight

(Getty Images/Thomas Barwick)

Just because you don't hear coughing or sneezing doesn't mean someone who's contagious isn't close enough to infect you. People who have the flu but aren't showing symptoms yet are as contagious as those who are. So for example, a crew member could be sick and not know it, and because they move around a lot and touch things like pillows and drinks, they have a much higher chance of spreading the flu virus than the average passenger. 

Again, the best way to stay healthy is avoid contact with others as much as possible, keep your hands clean and your face covered. It's also a good idea to keep hand sanitizer on you so you don't have to head to the restroom every time you touch something someone else may have touched. 

Choose your seat wisely

(Getty Images/susan.k.)

It may sound arbitrary, but your seat choice on an airplane matters if you're trying to avoid illness. The aisle seat seems to be a hotbed for germs, likely because people often use the top part of the seat for support as they walk up and down the aisle. Experts suggest opting for the window seat as it's furthest from the aisle and only has one potentially infected person on one side rather than two, like the middle seat. 

Your "amenities" 

Everything within reach of your airplane seat is a potential germ carrier, from the tray table, to the window shade, to the seat pocket in front of you. Passengers often treat those pockets like waste baskets, and sometimes, especially on quick turnover flights, the cleaning crew isn't able to clean them out or wipe them down well. In order to keep those germs at bay, wipe down these surfaces with antibacterial wipes. If you're unsure about the state of your seat back pocket, simply steer clear of it. 

Watch out for the restroom

(Getty Images/Stuart Dee)

Like most tiny, public spaces where people are constantly touching things, airplane restrooms are pretty dirty. Studies have found that everything from the sink faucets to the flush buttons can have E. coli. Best way to avoid such gross matter? Cover the toilet with a toilet seat cover and wash your hands with your own antibacterial gel rather than touch the sink faucets. 

Drink lots of water

It won't just help keep you hydrated — drinking water also helps fortify your immune system, making it that much harder for pesky cold and flu pathogens to gain any ground. Just make sure that you clean your hands if you accept water from a peeked-looking flight attendant. 

Build up your immune system with vitamins

(Getty Images/Letizia Le Fur)

While there is still no conclusive evidence that vitamins can keep you from getting a cold or the flu, many travel writers swear by them, and boosting your immune system before stepping onto a plane can't hurt. Try taking a vitamin C booster, multivitamin with vitamin D in it, and/or garlic. At the very least you'll have a bit more energy for your upcoming journey. 

Get the flu shot

If you're traveling anywhere this winter/spring and haven't gotten your flu shot yet, now's the time. It's the best line of defense against contracting the virus. You can get it at your doctor's office or at most chain pharmacy walk-in services. 

Know your flu risk. Check out the Flu Tracker on The Weather Channel App.