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Catch a Bus, Catch a Cold

Using Public Transportation Increases Risk of Developing a Respiratory Infection, Scientists Say
By Peter Russell
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Sheena Meredith, MD

Jan. 20, 2011 -- People who have recently ridden a bus are six times more likely than those who don’t use public transportation to find their next stop is the doctor’s office, researchers say.

The risk in question, they say, is of developing an acute respiratory infection (ARI). 

Experts at the University of Nottingham in England who have looked at the relationship between public transportation and ARI say, although the study is small, it underlines the need for good hygiene, particularly when winter viruses are rampant.

However, it would appear that regular users of public transportation might be better protected against germs than occasional bus riders.

Scientists say the relationship between public transportation use and acquisition of ARIs is not well understood but potentially important during epidemics and pandemics.

The research, which was funded by the Health Protection Agency, was led by University of Nottingham medical student Joy Troko during a flu outbreak in the city between December 2008 and January 2009.

Public Transportation Questionnaire

Troko and colleagues questioned 72 patients with an ARI about their use of buses in the five days leading up to the onset of their illness. They also asked 66 other people at the same Nottingham General Practice who had seen their doctor for another non-respiratory condition in order to form a control group.

They found that those who had used public transportation within five days of starting to feel ill were almost six times more likely to be diagnosed with an ARI than those with a different infection.

Practice Good Hygiene

“The risk appeared greatest among occasional bus or tram users,” said Jonathan Van Tam, professor of health protection in the university’s School of Community Health Science and director of the Health Protection Research Group.

Seasoned public transportation commuters, though, seem to be better protected against the viruses. “These data are very plausible when we think about the greater likelihood of developing protective antibodies to common respiratory viruses if repeatedly exposed,” Van Tam says in a statement.

The findings have been published in the online journal BMC Infectious Diseases.

The authors say a larger investigation is needed to confirm their results, but Van Tam said the findings “justify the need to practice good respiratory and hand hygiene when using public transport during periods when winter viruses are circulating and where possible to avoid situations where you might spread your germs to others when you have a respiratory illness.”

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