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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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Planes, Trains, and …Germs?

Travel Health Risks You Can -- and Can't - Avoid
WebMD Feature

Wherever you go, however you get there, you always have traveling companions -- germs.

Will these fellow travelers make you sick? That depends partly on luck, experts say. But you can do a lot to protect yourself.

Recommended Related to Cold & Flu

What Is the Flu?

Worried about catching the flu? Want to learn some ways to prevent it? Then read on to learn more about influenza -- what it is, how it's spread, and who's at greatest risk for getting it. Knowledge is power when it comes to preventing flu!

Read the What Is the Flu? article > >

The modes of transportation most often blamed for spreading disease are airplanes, cruise ships, and subway trains. Are they just scapegoats? Or are these popular conveyances really making us ill? WebMD asked experts who've studied transportation health.

Up in the Air, Germs Are There

The Ides of March, 2003, was unlucky indeed for the 120 travelers who that day boarded Air China flight 112. The Boeing 737-300 completed its three-hour flight from Hong Kong to Beijing without apparent incident. But coughing in seat 14E -- a middle seat near the center of the plane -- was a person carrying the deadly SARS virus.

Within eight days, 20 passengers and two flight attendants would come down with SARS. Some of those who became infected were sitting as far as seven rows away from the man carrying the SARS virus. Five would die.

It's not just SARS - and it's not just China. In 1979 a commercial airliner sat on the tarmac for three hours with its ventilation system shut down. Someone on board had the flu -- and, within three days, so did nearly three-fourths of the plane's passengers.

SARS and influenza, of course, are only two of the multitude of bugs lurking out there. But the case of Flight 112 suggests that the current understanding of the spread of airborne disease aboard aircraft, which is based on tuberculosis investigations, may be outdated. Emergency medicine specialist Mark A. Gendreau, MD, senior staff physician at Lahey Clinic Medical Center, Burlington, Mass., recently reviewed what is and isn't known about infectious disease spread during air travel.

"The CDC and World Health Organization say you risk getting an infection only if you are sitting within two rows of someone who has something - and only if you are sitting there for more than eight hours," Gendreau tells WebMD. "But Flight 112 was only three hours long, and people sitting as far as seven rows back were affected. So that says, 'Wait a minute folks.' That old advice may have worked for tuberculosis, but what about SARS and other infectious diseases? More study into that is needed."

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