Why You Always Get Sick When You Fly—and How to Fight It

Let’s be real: Between the small children, shared bathrooms, and confined cabin, every time you set foot on a crowded airplane you put your health at risk. But while scary-sounding illnesses like tuberculosis and meningitis make headlines when they’re contracted in airplanes, getting that sick isn’t very likely, says Paul Sax, M.D., the clinical director of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. That’s because planes recirculate fresh air and use good filtration systems.

The bad news? You’re pretty darn close to other people in flight, and planes aren’t always scrubbed crystal clean. “Catching an infection on a plane comes down to two things: airborne risks (you inhale some germ that’s contagious) and surface risks (you touch something), says Sax.

The Guy Next to You Hacking Up a Lung
“If there’s someone on the plane with a respiratory infection, that can be transmitted,” says Sax. In fact, when your face is 18 inches away from the faces of the people to your left and right, you’re going to be exposed to whatever respiratory infections they have, says Kathryn H. Jacobsen, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at George Mason University.

Your best defense: Forget politeness, says Sax, and ask the person coughing to cover their mouth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests this is one of the best methods for avoiding the spread of germs. Or consider a face mask, says Jacobsen. “If you want to be stylish while protecting yourself from germs, buy a fashion face mask,” she says. “They come in lots of styles, from kid-friendly cartoons to elegant lace.”

The Bathroom
“Even though planes are cleaned, there are areas where you have to be vigilant,” says Sax. The first: the restroom. Research done by travelmath.com, an online trip calculator, suggests that the toilet flusher is the biggest culprit of germs in the lavatory—with 265 colony-forming units (CFUs) of bacteria per square inch.

Your best defense: Since you can’t really avoid the ladies’ room, wash your hands carefully, use a paper towel to open and close the door, flush the toilet with the paper towel between your hand and the flusher, and then toss the PT, suggests Sax.

The Seat Table
That drop-down platform for plane food? Not so clean. “Recently, these have been found to be very highly colonized with bacteria,” says Sax. (Travelmath.com actually found that they’re the worst offenders on the entire plane, with 2,155 CFUs of bacteria per square inch.) Your biggest worry is foodborne illness like salmonella, which—while rare—can be transmitted by touching a contaminated surface, says Sax.

Your best defense: Pack an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, suggests Jacobsen. “And consider bringing along some wet wipes to disinfect your tray, armrests, window shade, back pocket, and other hard surfaces,” she says.

The Window Seat
One of the biggest threats to your health on a plane, especially on a long flight, is called deep vein thrombosis (DVT), says Jacobsen: “The combination of sitting still and dehydration increase the risk of blood clots forming in the legs.” At worst, those clots can travel to your lungs causing a pulmonary embolism—where one or more of the arteries in your lungs get blocked by the clot. That’s a medical emergency—and it can be fatal, she says. You could also experience a sunburn sitting near the window. “The UV rays are much stronger and harmful when sitting by the window of the plane,” says Debra Jaliman, M.D., a dermatologist and author of Skin Rules. Some research even suggests that pilots are at an increased risk for skin cancers like melanoma because of exposure to UV rays.

Your best defense: Staying hydrated and moving your legs around (even when you’re sitting) will be your best weapons against DVT, says Jacobsen. And while the views are great, book an aisle seat. Research from the American College of Chest Physicians shows that people in window seats may be at an increased risk of DVT because they’re less likely to get up. If you know you have certain risk factors—being on birth control can make you susceptible—and are on a flight that’s six hours or longer, consider compression socks, too. We like 2XU Thermal Compression Socks ($50, 2xu.com). When it comes to your skin: If you’re the first in your row, pull down the window shade—or ask your seatmate to do it. And don’t forget sunscreen on the plane. Try EltaMD UV Pure Broad Spectrum SPF 47 ($23, dermstore.com)—it’s chemical-free so it won’t irritate even sensitive skin.

The Dry Air
“Airplane cabin humidity is 20 percent, whereas normal air humidity is 40 to 70 percent,” says Jaliman. The direct result of this desert-like environment: seriously dried-out skin.

Your best defense: Mist your skin with water and apply moisturizer throughout the flight, says Jaliman. BYOS(soap) too—the ones in airplane bathrooms tend to be drying and can suck even more moisture out of your skin, she says. Jaliman likes Dove Deep Moisture Nourishing Body Wash ($8, drugstore.com). Pack it in small containers, and carry it with you to the loo. “It contains glycerin, sunflower seed oil, and soy bean oil, so it’s incredibly hydrating,” she says.

via Why You Always Get Sick When You Fly—and How to Fight It | Women’s Health

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