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Planes, Cruise Ships, and Germs

Boost your chances of healthy travel by taking a few preventive steps.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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 sights.

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 environment."

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.

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