Expat Life

Don’t get sick from flying! Avoid catching a cold or flu this season

Does it seem to you that the only colds you get are after taking a plane ride? Me too! It may not be our imagination. SmarterTravel.com cites one study that showed a 20% increased risk of catching a cold after flying, while another study found that colds may be more than 100 times more likely to be transmitted on a plane than during normal life on the ground.

Why? There’s a myriad of reasons!

  • Extremely low cabin humidity (caused by low humidity at high elevations). Flights typically fly at about 30,000 to 35,000 feet, where humidity runs at about 10% or lower. At this low humidity our “natural defense system” — mucus in our noses and throats — dries up, allowing the offending germs more access to infect us.  Another problem: low air pressure and oxygen compromise immune function, reducing the body’s lymphocyte immune response, especially during long flights.

Stay hydrated by sipping water (not alcohol or caffeinated beverages) before, during, and immediately after the flight. Irrigate your nose with a saline solution, before and after the flight, to help reduce the risk of a sinus infection.

  • The germs themselves. Surfaces throughout the plane, from the armrests to remote control handsets, to tray tables — even seatbelts are potentially contaminated since viruses that cause colds and flu can survive for hours.

Wash your hands often, with soap and water, and wipe down all surfaces around you with sanitizing wipes.  Some people carry sanitizing gels or sprays, but liquids are a problem when flying unless in 3-ounce containers or less (non-aerosol).  Hand sanitizers may not get rid of all germs, but it’s the first line of defense.

The US Centers for Disease Control recommends alcohol-based products made specifically for washing hands — least 60% alcohol. Apply the product to the palm of one hand (read the label to learn the correct amount) and rub the product all over the surfaces of your hands until your hands are dry.

  • Airplane bathrooms. Just like you would try and limit contact with the toilet-seat surface, Frommers.com recommends a “non-touch technique” when washing your hands to limit germ exposure.  Use a paper towel to turn the water on, wash with hot water and soap, then use a fresh paper towel turn off the faucet (if it’s not an automatic shut-off) and to open the restroom door. This is a good practice in any public bathroom.
  • Don’t Touch! Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth. As reported in the Daily Mail, “researchers have found that we ‘inoculate’ ourselves with bacteria and viruses by touching our mouths and noses with our hands after brushing contaminated surfaces.”

All these years later I can recall the moment when, at the gym early in the morning, I paused from my workout to scratch my eye.  “Oh, I shouldn’t do that,” I thought, and then didn’t think about it again until that evening when I came down with a fever, cough, and chills.  Correlation isn’t causation, but it’s a probability that I picked up a virulent germ and inoculated myself, regretfully.

  • Bump Elbows, Avoid Shaking Hands. Knowing that touch is how most germs are spread, it makes sense to bump a closed fist, or grasp each other’s elbows as a safer way to meet and greet. Other ideas? Hip bumps, bows, peace sign.
  • Colds and flu both cause similar symptoms (fever, chills, aches and pains, cough, sore throat, stuffy and runny nose) but the flu is far worse and can cause serious complications in people with certain medical conditions such as diabetes and chronic obstructive respiratory disease. Only influenza virus causes the flu, while many different viruses cause colds. Getting a flu shot can reduce risk of getting the flu from 40% – 60%, and is associated with reduced hospitalizations among people with diabetes by 79%, and in people with chronic lung disease by 52%. Flu symptoms usually appear suddenly, while colds are generally milder. If you have a prolonged (more than 2-3 days) high fever (adults above 102 F or 38.8 C; children 103 F or 39.4 C) and a worsening of symptoms, get to your doctor, pronto.

Ninety percent of respiratory infections are caused by viruses, including colds and the flu, and will not respond to antibiotics. However, if your cold or flu morphs into a bacterial infection, and you’re sick for more than a couple of weeks, and your doctor sees white spots in your throat, your doctor will test you for strep, which will require antibiotics.

As reported in Health.com, “A lab test is the only ironclad way to determine if you truly need an antibiotic. A physician can collect a sample of bodily gunk (whatever you can cough up or blow out of your nose), or take a throat swab. In general, a culture, in which bacteria are grown in the lab and tested, can take a day or two. Doctors often forgo the expense and time of a lab test if they think they can make a best-guess decision based on the above symptoms.”

Meanwhile, keep your immunity up by getting enough sleep, eating a healthy and varied diet, full of fresh vegetables and fruits, and exercising.  A recipe for good health throughout the year! Stay well.

Sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-hand-sanitizer.html

DailyMail.com. Want to avoid flu? Stop touching your face! http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2240974/Want-avoid-flu-Stop-touching-face.html

Frommers.com. Travel Health: 7 Ways to Avoid Germs on an Airplane. http://www.frommers.com/slideshows/820412-travel-health-7-ways-to-avoid-germs-on-an-airplane

Health.com. Stuffy Nose? 5 Ways to Tell if You Need an Antibiotic.  http://www.health.com/health/condition-article/0,,20251853,00.html

PassportHealth.com. What is in the 2017-2018 Flu Shot? https://www.passporthealthusa.com/2017/07/what-is-in-the-2017-2018-flu-shot/

TravelChannel.com. How to Sanitize Everything You Touch When You Travel. http://www.travelchannel.com/roam-blog/news-deals/how-to-sanitize-everything-you-touch-when-you-travel

University Health News. Getting Sick After Flying? How to Prevent That Cold or Nasty Sinus Infection.  https://universityhealthnews.com/daily/eyes-ears-nose-throat/getting-sick-after-flying-how-to-prevent-that-cold-or-nasty-sinus-infection/

Susan Burke March

Susan Burke March

Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally — a fun... Read More

  • LadyMoon

    I’ve done a lot of air travel over the past 25 years and n-e-v-e-r get a ‘cold.’ (However, I recall that I don’t get colds or the flu…) I am a little bit of a nut case with my sani-wipes…but have missed the seat-belt buckle! Thanks for the reminders…

  • Anthony Castiglia

    Airplanes fly at the altitudes you mentioned but cabin pressures are around 8000 feet and yet the air in aircraft is dry. So your advice to keep hydrated is very good!!