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Believe it or not, airplanes are actually one of the cleanest forms of public transportation around. However, with hundreds of people packed into a small metal tube breathing the same recycled air for hours on end, germs are inevitable. Although airlines have stepped up their cleaning game, especially in the age of COVID, flying still exposes you to a whole host of creepy viruses and bacteria.
According to researchers, the dry air and lack of circulation on airplanes allows cold and flu viruses to thrive. Whenever someone coughs or sneezes, those germs can spread rapidly throughout the cabin. Various studies have detected rhinovirus, influenza A and B, parainfluenza, adenovirus, and RSV on surfaces like seat trays, armrests, and lavatory handles. Yuck!
Of course, the coronavirus has heightened concerns about picking up an illness while jet-setting. Dr. Mark Gendreau, an expert in infectious diseases, says that the greatest risk comes from sitting within two rows of someone contagious. Proximity to others makes it easier to be exposed to droplets or aerosols. Masks help reduce transmission, but being crammed together at 30,000 feet with strangers makes it tough to avoid the pathogens they're breathing out.
Many Reddit users have traded horror stories about catching severe illnesses after flights. One unlucky passenger got a sinus infection and bronchitis after a 4-hour trip, saying the plane was a "cesspool" of germs. Others described debilitating coughs, sinus pressure, sore throats, and lost voices that set in shortly after deplaning. Flu-like symptoms that last for weeks are not uncommon post-travel.
So how do you stay healthy amidst all those airborne microbes? Experts say opting for the window seat reduces your exposure to other passengers wandering the aisles. Staying well-hydrated, eating nutritious foods, getting enough sleep, washing your hands frequently, and not touching your face can also help stave off infection. Some swear by vitamins, emergen-c packets, zinc supplements, echinacea, apple cider vinegar, and other immune boosters before and during trips.
When it comes to battling germs on a plane, I come prepared with an arsenal of anti-microbial weapons. My carry-on is stocked with enough disinfecting wipes, sprays, and gels to sanitize a hospital. I start by thoroughly wiping down my seating area"armrests, seat belt, tray table, headrest, screen, and control buttons. One microbiology study found that the bacterial count on tray tables was eight times higher than on toilet seats! Disinfecting surfaces provides a protective layer against whatever the last passenger left behind.
My hands never touch my face until I have scrubbed them clean with antibacterial soap or sanitizing gel. Studies show 80% of infections are transmitted via hands, so frequent washing and sanitizing is a must. I treat bathroom faucets like biohazards, turning them on and off with paper towels. Flushing the toilet with the door closed contains germs. I also use a paper towel to avoid touching the bathroom door handle on my way out.
While in flight, I liberally spray my hands and surrounding airspace with germ-killing mist. My favorite anti-microbial sprays use ingredients like clove oil, thyme oil, or ethyl alcohol to disintegrate many viruses. A light misting helps create a "zone of sanitization" around me.
To avoid breathing in germs, I wear a snugly-fitted mask at all times. An N95 or KN95 offers the best protection against airborne particles. I switch to a fresh mask after 4 hours to avoid buildup of germs from my own breath. The mask stays on when eating or drinking, going up only briefly to sneak bites and sips.
I boost my immune system pre-flight by taking immune-supporting supplements like vitamin C, zinc, and elderberry. While proper hand hygiene is the best defense, a robust immune system provides backup against foreign pathogens. I continue taking supplements during and after travel to help my body fight potential infection.
While masks are recommended to reduce the transmission of illnesses like COVID-19, wearing one on a plane remains a polarizing issue. For some travelers, masks are an essential safeguard against germy cabin air. For others, masks represent oppression and a loss of personal freedom. This debate has sparked confrontations on flights and even acts of violence.
In 2021, the FAA reported a record spike in unruly passenger incidents, many involving disputes over mask policies. Some travelers adamantly refuse to comply with the federal mask mandate, resulting in scuffles with flight attendants and forcible removal from aircraft.
A survey by the International Air Transport Association found that 80% of passengers think masks should be mandatory on flights for the foreseeable future. Pro-maskers view them as a civic duty to protect vulnerable groups. Frequent flyer Malik stresses the need for "collective responsibility" on crowded planes, saying he happily masks up to avoid endangering others.
Meanwhile, anti-maskers insist that mandatory masks infringe on personal liberties. Tennis star Novak Djokovic made headlines when he flouted mask rules on a flight, calling them "crazy." Others frame it as a matter of comfort, claiming masks inhibit breathing. One woman sued Delta airlines after being barred from a flight for removing her mask to eat, slamming the "absurd" policy.
Caught in the middle are flight crews tasked with enforcing mask compliance. Many report being cursed at, threatened, assaulted, and spat on after asking passengers to mask up properly. The FAA says unruly behavior has created unsafe conditions. Flight attendants describe masks as the number one trigger of passenger aggression.
Adding fuel to the debate is confusion over policies as mandates lift. While no longer federally required on U.S. flights, masks are still compulsory on most international routes. Toronto-based Porter Airlines dropped its mask rule in June 2022, then quickly reinstated it after fielding customer complaints. Such flip-flopping fuels further resentment.
The best advice is to closely monitor airline policies to avoid hassles. If masks are required, comply fully from boarding to deplaning to prevent confrontations. Limit mask breaks to quick sips of water. Be respectful of flight attendants who are just doing their job.
Constant wiping and sanitizing of surfaces is a vital part of my germ-fighting regimen both on and off the plane. Armrests, tray tables, seat belts, screens, and air vents all get disinfected with antibacterial wipes before I settle in. I make sure to give extra attention to the complimentary blankets and headphones, since you never know if they were properly cleaned after the last passenger's use.
During longer flights, I periodically wipe down surfaces again to combat any new germs that may have accumulated. Seat pockets are crawling with bacteria too, so I avoid putting anything inside them. After sneezing or coughing into my elbow, I immediately use a fresh sanitizing wipe on any areas that may have been sprayed with germs.
In the lavatory, I wipe the toilet handle, faucets, door latch, and any other high touch areas before and after use. When waiting in line, I'm wary of leaning on the walls, since one study found drug-resistant staph bacteria lurking there. Once back in my seat, hand sanitizer is applied liberally.
Frequent wipe-downs give me peace of mind against picking up illnesses, especially the dreaded norovirus. This nasty stomach bug spreads quickly in confined spaces and can linger on surfaces for days. Norovirus outbreaks are not uncommon on cruises and tours, and flights are similarly risky. One woman attributes her debilitating bout of vomiting and diarrhea to norovirus contracted on a plane after casual bathroom contact. Now she won't fly without sanitizing wipes!
While some label enthusiastic wipe-down routines as obsessive germaphobia, medical experts confirm it's wise to clean your personal environment when traveling. Microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba says a good wipe-down removes up to 99% of germs on airplane surfaces. Disinfecting kills viruses that hands later touch and transfer. He endorses bringing your own wipes and avoiding lavatory handles bare-handed.
The airplane lavatory is one of the germiest places on a flight, yet we all have to use it. This necessary evil poses unique hazards due to cramped quarters and heavy foot traffic. Researchers have discovered that water splashes inside the toilet bowl can propel microbes up to six feet in the air when flushed, contaminating surfaces. Door handles, faucets, latches, and toilet buttons touched by hundreds of hands daily spread germs galore. Even the very air inside airplane lavatories contains up to 75 times more bacteria than the cabin. No wonder many aviophobes cite filthy plane bathrooms as their number one fear.
Frequent fliers swap toilet terror stories on forums. One man refuses to wear sandals on planes again after stepping in a puddle of urine on the lavatory floor. A woman hovered with bare legs and ended up catching a bacterial infection. Others mention changing baby diapers in impossibly tiny bathrooms or experiencing clogged toilets overflowing mid-flight. Tales of walking in on naked passengers and unsanitary messes abound.
In one notorious incident, a woman spread fecal matter all over the walls, mirror, and tissue holder of a United Airlines bathroom. Thankfully, a hazmat team was waiting when the plane landed to immediately clean and disinfect the health hazard. After hearing about the mutli-surface contamination, many Americans admit this would make them think twice about using the lavatory barefoot or wearing shorts on a plane.
Budget airlines with short turnarounds often do not have time to deep clean bathrooms between flights. Yet even the most thorough cleanings cannot combat some ISSUES, such as turbulence causing liquid splashes or passengers with poor aim. While flight attendants tidy and restock bathrooms throughout trips, only a complete disinfection of all surfaces after each flight could eliminate most germs. Realistically, this is not feasible.
To make matters worse, airplane toilet design exacerbates hygiene issues. Small, closet-sized rooms combined with powerful, sucking ventilation flushing systems spread germs forcefully. Most commercial lavatories lack proper air filtration and use vacant/occupied signals instead of floor-to-ceiling doors. Cramped quarters make it hard not to contact contaminated areas.
Trying to get some shut-eye on a long haul flight can be challenging enough without worrying about catching germs from your seatmate. However, avoiding contact with contaminated surfaces and protecting yourself during periods of vulnerability is key to staying healthy at 30,000 feet.
Sleeping on planes inevitably involves close proximity to high-touch areas teeming with bacteria and viruses. Headrests, armrests, seat recliner buttons, seatbelt latches, tray tables and personal air vents should be disinfected pre-flight. Bring antibacterial wipes and thoroughly wipe down your seating space and floor area, as shoes track in germs.
Avoid using airline-provided blankets and pillows, as they may not be washed between flights. Bring your own freshly laundered travel pillow, blanket or sweater to stay cozy. Use sanitizing wipes on surfaces if your bare legs, arms or neck will touch them. Protect eyes, nose and mouth from airborne germs with a mask. Filtered airplane air still mingles with recirculated passenger exhalations.
Don't let hands touch food or face during snacking or meals. Keep masks on when not actively eating or drinking to block ingress of pathogens. Remove briefly only for bites or sips, then replace promptly. Disinfect tray tables before and after.
When nature calls en route to the lavatory, beware of germ exposure risks there. Wash hands for 20+ seconds with soap in the tiny sink, use a paper towel to turn off faucets, and avoid directly touching handles. Norovirus can live for weeks on surfaces. Diarrheal illness after a flight may indicate contact with bathroom germs.
Frequent hand sanitizing and minimal surface touching prevents transferring germs picked up in the lavatory back to your seat area. Remove blankets, headphones or items used by prior occupants from the seat pocket, another bacterial hot spot. Avoid placing personal items inside.
Inflight sleep lowers immune defenses, so extra care is needed. The dry, pressurized cabin environment combined with recirculated air fosters transmission. Recent studies detected rhinovirus, adenovirus, influenza and RSV on various airplane surfaces.
Cover mouth when coughing or sneezing so seatmates don't breathe in germs. Request a sick passenger be moved rather than risk exposure for hours. Disinfect areas they touched. Carry sanitizing wipes and sprays to clean hands/space after possible contamination.
Stay hydrated and pack immune boosting snacks. Melatonin, sleep masks and noise cancelling headphones all combat jet lag and fatigue, enabling rest. Allowing proper sleep strengthens the immune system against airplane germ exposure.
After hours cooped up inhaling recirculated air, it feels liberating to finally exit a germ-filled metal tube once it reaches the destination gate. However, breathing a sigh of relief that the flight is over means you"ve likely already inhaled a lungful of pathogens. Maintaining diligent anti-microbial habits until fully clear of the airport is key to landing safely in a germ-free zone.
Frequent flyer Maxine describes her ritual upon deplaning: "I keep my mask on and avoid touching my face. I don't use the airport restroom to avoid germs. I sanitize my hands instead. Getting out of the airport as fast as possible limits exposure." She continues safeguards in the taxi or rideshare, wiping down seats and wearing her mask en route to the hotel. Maxine stresses the importance of washing hands immediately upon arrival before doing anything else.
Epidemiologist Dr. Martin cautions that risks don't disappear after getting off the plane. "Airports have just as much opportunity for microbe transmission, if not more, than the flight itself," he warns. Security check points, boarding gate areas, concession stands, lounges, restrooms, and shuttles all facilitate the spread of pathogens in a similar manner as recirculated cabin air. Dr. Martin advises maintaining vigilance until safely ensconced in your final destination, whether that is a hotel, home, or vacation rental.
Frequent passenger Jada's airport routine minimizes germ contact. "I use hand sanitizer right before getting off the plane, keep my mask on, and try not to touch anything." At baggage claim, she reiterates, "no touching your face! Who knows how many infected hands have touched that escalator railing?" After collecting luggage, Jada heads straight outside for pickup. She reports sanitizing her hands after putting bags in the car. Her final step is showering immediately upon arrival.
Travel blogger Emma offers tips for a sanitary airport experience: "Use sanitizing wipes on your seat if waiting at the gate. Avoid crowded shuttles and trains; book a taxi or drive yourself. Go straight from the gate to the exit without stopping. Skip public restrooms and dining areas. Load your own luggage, and wipe handles after. Shower and change clothes before doing anything else post-travel." This reduces bringing germs into your final destination after leaving the airport.
The Wall Street Journal reported on an infamous norovirus outbreak originating at an airport. Over 500 people fell violently ill after being exposed to the extremely contagious virus via an infected passenger there. Norovirus can survive for weeks on surfaces like stair rails, elevator buttons, luggage cart handles, and bathroom fixtures. Dining areas and lounges also pose a norovirus hazard. This emphasizes the importance of minimizing contact with public surfaces when transitioning from plane to exit.
Virologist Dr. Hannah stresses getting home safely before letting your guard down. "You avoided infection risks in-flight through strict hygiene habits. Continue this until securely out of the germ zone, aka the airport. The end of your flight is not the end of germ exposure danger." She advises designating clothes as "travel clothes" and changing after arriving home. Also immediately wash hands and disinfect luggage. Follow this with showering to remove any lingering airplane microbes.