The Key to Healthy Thanksgiving Air Travel: Don’t Touch Anything

The nature of air travel only helps germs spread— many bodies, close together, without any way out.
The nature of air travel only helps germs spread— many bodies, close together, without any way out. –David Prasad / Flickr

As fond, expectant thoughts of Thanksgiving dinners and warm reunions swirl through our minds, I’m here to tell you to pack your antibacterial wipes for that flight home. Much like turkeys are packed with stuffing, planes are stuffed with germs.

Planes, germs, and anxiety have all been on all of our minds lately. October brought us a passenger flying US Airways who jokingly shouted that he had Ebola. He was promptly escorted off the flight by a hazmat-suited medical team. On October 19, news spread of strippers who were quarantining themselves after sitting next to Amber Vinson, who would later be diagnosed with Ebola. Boston even had its own scare: Five passengers with flu-like symptoms were taken off a flight at Logan International Airport–again, hazmat style.

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“During this holiday season, unless you’re travelling from Sierra Leone, the risk of getting Ebola is basically nonexistent by being on an airplane,’’ said Dr. Laura K. Snydman, a primary care physician at Tufts Medical Center. “So I hope people don’t change their travel plans based on that fear.’’

So we don’t need to worry about Ebola, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other, less fatal, illnesses waiting to be contracted on planes. The nature of air travel only helps germs spread— many bodies, close together, no way out. The number of flights this Thanksgiving season will be the highest it has been since 2007. About 3.55 million Americans are expected to fly, according to AAA.

“The most important thing [to avoid getting sick on a flight] is going to be hygiene and washing your hands,’’ said Snydman. “If someone sneezes on their hand and then touches the bathroom door, and then you happen to touch the bathroom door and start biting your finger nails, or you rub your eye or something, then you certainly are at risk for getting a cold.’’

“The best you can do is to be as clean as possible,’’ said Dr. James M. Barbaree, a researcher at Auburn University Center for Detection & Food Safety.

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Snydman recommends that passengers liberally use hand sanitizer, wipe down surfaces with antibacterial wipes, and keep tissues handy so that they are armed to fight any potential germs that might come in their path. Such germs might be anywhere: aircraft’s armrests, toilet handle, faucet handle, bathroom door handle, seat back pocket, tray table, TV remote control, and even the window shade handle. And if you chose to fly sick, wear a mask, for all of our sakes.

“The thing about an airplane is that you are crowded into this cube, so you’re a little bit closer, and this is especially true of flights like to Australia that take 14 to 16 hours. That means your exposure time is going to be higher,’’ Barbaree said.

The good news for passengers on short domestic flights: “If you have a quick flight, then your exposure time is not very high at all.’’

Flyers are most likely to get viruses that are airborne while on a plane, such as the common cold or the flu. But even the likelihood of getting a common virus from a flight is low, so Barbaree recommends caution and common sense while flying.

“It’s more likely you’re not going to get sick from being on an airplane,’’ he said. “But these are things you should just be aware of.’’

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