Planes, Cruise Ships, and Germs
Boost your chances of healthy travel by taking a few preventive steps.
Flying to great-aunt Erma's house for Thanksgiving? Or taking a leisurely
wintertime cruise along the shores of the Mexican Riviera? Boost your chances
of healthy travel by taking a few preventive steps. That way, you'll cut your
risk of catching cold and flu from other plane passengers. And you won't be
confined to your cabin on the cruise ship, battling a nasty case of
gastroenteritis while other passengers are off enjoying the
Flu Season Coming
As winter approaches, "the concern right now is influenza," says
William Schaffner, MD, a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
and vice president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Many people worry that they're more susceptible to cold and flu germs while
sitting inside a plane for hours with hundreds of other travelers. But there's
no strong evidence to show that we're more vulnerable in the air than on the
ground, says Gary Brunette, MD, MS, a medical epidemiologist who serves on the
CDC Travel Health Team. "Certainly, [on a plane] people are in close
contact for long periods of time, and one would think that there's a higher
likelihood of coming in contact with somebody who's sick. But there's nothing
to show that it happens any more often than in a normal working
To trap viruses, bacteria, and fungi most newer airplanes filter the air
with HEPA filters similar to those used in hospital respiratory isolation
rooms, according to the CDC.
"The planes have very good filtration systems, and they also introduce
fresh air into circulation. So any microbes that might be in the air would
possibly be filtered out pretty quickly," Brunette says.
Still, filtration isn't foolproof. "It's not 100% air exchange all the
time, just as it is not in any of our buildings. The fresh air intake is
incremental over time, so there's a fair amount of air sharing over time in the
airplane," Schaffner adds.
And you can still catch a cold or the flu if someone near you coughs or
sneezes infected droplets that directly enter your eyes or nose. Or you might
touch a contaminated armrest or tray table and transfer the germs to your eyes
or nose by hand.
Also, the air within planes is usually very dry, with 10%-20% humidity,
according to the CDC. When your mucous membranes dry out as a result, you're
more susceptible to infection.
So what can you do to stay one step ahead of cold and flu germs while
flying? Experts offered these tips.
1. Wash hands frequently. To cut down on viruses that hitch a ride on
your hands, "frequent hand washing or using hand gels is very
important," Schaffner says. An alcohol-based gel hand sanitizer that
contains 62% ethanol does the best job at killing germs. After you wash with
soap and warm water, you can use some gel to get your hands even cleaner.
Avoid hand contact with your face.