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Fliers' Survival Guide for Airports, Planes

Taking some simple precautions can help ensure a safe and healthy arrival.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

'Tis the season for spending time with family and friends, and that can involve air travel.

The travel season kicks off with Thanksgiving and continues through the New Year. This means security hassles, including possible health risks from the new full-body scanners, as well as the not-all-that-remote possibility of catching a cold or flu while flying the friendly skies.

Fear not. Here are expert tips for healthy flying, starting at the airport.

Scanners and Pat-Downs

There have been many changes to the airport and airline security process since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Although these measures are for our own protection, some people worry that they bring a new element of risk into the equation.

Full-body back scatter X-ray scanners are generating a lot of controversy because of the radiation that they emit. The Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security maintain that these scanners emit safe levels of radiation, but others are not so sure there is a such thing -- especially for frequent fliers.

"If you travel a lot, you may not want to go through them and may want to opt for pat-down instead," says Brenda Powell, MD, a travel medicine expert at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. The alternative to these so-called "strip-search" screenings is known as an "enhanced" pat-down.

No-Shoes Zone

Another safeguard was born after "shoe bomber" Richard Reid attempted to hide explosives in his shoes on a U.S.-bound plane in December 2001.

Now, fliers must take off their shoes at security in U.S. airports and send them through the X-ray machine to be screened. That's a lot of shoeless feet right where you're about to tread.

"Make sure you wear socks," says Michael Zimring, MD, director of the Center for Wilderness and Travel Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

"If your feet are sweaty, you can get a bacterial or fungal infection," Zimring says. "The floor is dirty and people are walking all over it. Who knows what is on there?"

It's Germy Up There

The holidays coincide with the yearly cold and flu season, and a widely quoted study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research suggests you may be up to 100 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane than you are in your normal day-to-day-life.

To lower your risk, don't touch the doorknob on the airplane bathroom. "Take a paper towel, and grab the door knob to get out," he says. Also avoid grabbing onto seats when walking through the plane. If you must take hold to steady yourself, use hand sanitizer as soon as you return to your seat.

"On the airplane, we are constantly touching stuff that hundreds of other people are touching, and a cold virus can live on an inanimate object for quite a while," Powell says.

Transmission can occur quickly and innocently by touching a faucet in the bathroom, and then touching your mouth or eyes.  If you are the sick passenger, cough into your elbow just like they teach schoolchildren to do. "You don’t want the virus on your hand," Powell says.

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