Travelers who end up with a cold after taking a flight frequently believe that the air on the plane is to blame for their sickness.  According to a recent MSNBC article, however, the real culprit is fellow passengers who are already sick and spread their germs through coughing and sneezing on board.   In reality, the air on an airplane is no worse than the air circulating in a typical office building. 

Many passengers believe that they are breathing the same air from the time the cabin doors close to the time they open at the end of the flight.  However, airplanes take a mix of air from the cabin and fresh air from the outside that is heated by the engines.  This air is then passed through HEPA filters to be sterilized before it flows back into the passenger cabin.  The air on the planes is refreshed more frequently than in most offices.

The biggest concern for travelers trying to stay healthy is sitting near a sick passenger on the flight.  The germs from a cough or sneeze can easily travel to nearby rows and live for up to twenty-four hours on commonly touched surfaces, such as arm rests or tray tables.  According to the article, airlines have no protocol or requirement to clean these surfaces between flights, which means there are germs present when travelers board the plane.

The best bet to stay healthy is to avoid sitting near a sick passenger. Charles Gerba, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona at Tucson, recommends that travelers ask to be moved to an open seat if they are placed next to someone who is coughing and sneezing.  If there are no seats available, Gerba suggests that travelers turn the air vent to medium flow and point the air current just slightly in front of their face.  This will help to push away germs from a cough or sneeze.  Passengers should also try to stay hydrated by drinking 8 ounces of water for every two hours in the air.  The most important thing for travelers to remember, however, is to keep their hands clean and avoid touching common surfaces as much as possible.  Following this advice will help travelers stay healthy after a flight.

Photo from the CDC.gov.

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About The Author

Christie Erdman, a guest contributor to the Healthy Travel blog, is a recent graduate of the University of Richmond with a degree in Economics and Marketing. She enjoys traveling, and had the opportunity to spend a semester studying at Universita Bocconi in Milan, Italy during her junior year.

1 Comment

  1. And knowing that some passengers may be sick, how often do the crew use sanitizing wipes to wipe down the overhead latches, seat-belts, arm-rests, tray-tables, fan-vents and light and call buttons?

    On my last flight there was piece of chewed gum stuck to the side of my seat, still soft.
    Obviously they’re not CLEANING the planes very well or very often…

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