Can Air Travel Make You Sick?

by Robert McGarvey

It’s that time of year: wherever I fly to it’s as though the plane is a sick ward or so it seems amid the coughs and sneezes that fill the air. The question is: can flying make you sick?

I ask the same question in church, at theaters, wherever I will sit for an hour or three amid people who are coughing. But I especially ask it on planes because the quarters are snug, the air is recirculated, and at one point I kept track of diseases and my flying and it honestly seemed that about half the time I in fact came down with a cold or flu after flights in the prime cold and flu season. Was this in my mind? Or do we in fact expose ourselves to disease when we fly?

Understand, airlines can and sometimes do refuse to board an ill passenger. According to the World Health Organization, the judgment hinges on whether the passenger “is fit to travel, needs medical attention or presents a danger to other passengers and crew or to the safety of the aircraft.” The decision rests with the captain. And of course we all remember flying with obviously ill people so enforcement of this right to exclude is not consistent. I do not personally know anybody who has been denied boarding due to illness, at least nobody has told me they have been and people tell me all manner of airline horror stories, just not one about exclusion due to illness.

Also know that airplanes are filthy in many instances. Travelmath sent a microbiologist to collect samples from five airports and four flights and it reported “airports and airplanes are dirtier than your home .”

It elaborated: “Surprisingly, it is the one surface that our food rests on – the tray table – that was the dirtiest of all the locations and surfaces tested. Since this could provide bacteria direct transmission to your mouth, a clear takeaway from this is to eliminate any direct contact your food has with the tray table.”

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, in a broader study, concluded similar. But it found that the headrest is the most contaminated item on a plane.

It added: “the most concerning finding…was E. coli bacteria detected on both the seat pocket and the headrest. The presence of E. coli indicates fecal contamination, and the bacteria can cause intestinal infections, with symptoms that can include diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain.”

It is a very good idea to bring wipes on a flight and to wipe down the tray table, headrest, and the arm rests. Sure, you may look kooky to fellow passengers – but you are disinfecting and they probably aren’t. Who’s more likely to get sick?

And be meticulous about washing your hands.

The omnipresent airplane contamination sets the stage for the big question: if you fly on a plane with passengers suffering from infectious diseases (colds, flus, etc) are you likely to get sick? Researchers have looked at exactly that question. Their paper starts this way: “With over 3 billion airline passengers annually, the inflight transmission of infectious diseases is an important global health concern. Over a dozen cases of inflight transmission of serious infections have been documented, and air travel can serve as a conduit for the rapid spread of newly emerging infections and pandemics.”

The upshot, per the Telegraph, is that it’s not our imagination that we can get sick because we flew: “if you are seated within a row or two seats of an infected passenger you have an 80 per cent chance of catching a bug.”

Another take-away: “the study showed that a sick cabin crew member was likely to infect an average of 4.6 passengers per flight, and that those seated in the middle and aisle seats, due to their proximity to crew, were at the greatest risk.”

Remember that: it’s not just fellow passengers but also crew who may be infectious.

Bottomline: you are not imagining that you caught a cold on your last flight – not if you were seated next to a cougher.

Can you protect yourself? If you can, change seats. Get yourself at a remove from a person you believe to be ill and that is buying yourself some better health because just about all research indicates that proximity is key in spreading diseases inflight.

Put aside the scare headlines and, really, flights are not that risky for our health, not even in cold and flu season. Take a few precautions and probably you’ll be fine – especially if you can keep a distance from obviously ill passengers and crew.

3 thoughts on “Can Air Travel Make You Sick?”

  1. Great article. Although it might make you self conscious it’s a good idea to bring a mask along. I pack one in my carryon. If someone is coughing and you can’t change your seat the mask might prevent you from catching a cold. Also when you go to the restroom open the door with a napkin. Flush with a paper towel. Wash your hands then turn the water off with a paper towel. Open the door of the bathroom with a paper towel upon leaving. I’ve started packing a thermometer in my carryon dice my husband got pretty sick with a fever in Greece in the middle of the night last May. I learned all this from bring a nurse!

  2. To ward off the common viral infections, I do 3 things that really work. The first is take “Kyolic Formula 103,” which are capsules containing aged garlic extract and some other immune boosters. I’ll take two capsules 2x/day the day of a trip, during a trip, and for at least one day after a trip. After returning home, if I feel as if I’m coming down with something or if the return jet cabin sounded like a sick ward, I’ll have at least a couple of bowls of (good quality) tomato soup on successive days, and also a very potent smoothie with antioxidants, preferably Bolthouse Farms C-Boost. All of this works…at the very least, you will shorten the duration of a cold. I don’t routinely consume the Kyolic or Bolthouse products, just around an airplane itinerary or when I’m otherwise infected.

  3. I mentally roll my eyes whenever I see a staffer run their hands on the outer luggage bin doors fir the length of the aircraft when they do that they are exposing themselves to the hands of almost everyone on the plane. If that isn’t enough, think about them using those same hands to serve you food and drinks. Yuuuck. I use wipes, and on a long flight, especially if their are sick people nearbye, I use a face-mask. I get sick far less.

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