Travel Health: 7 Ways to Avoid Germs on an Airplane

A woman guards herself from germs on a commercial flight. Bob B. Brown
By Beth Collins

There's something about airplanes that just screams germs. The enclosed space, the recycled air, the guy sitting next to you who refuses to cover his mouth when he coughs -- it's enough to make you want to de-plane and drive to your destination instead.

Thankfully, planes aren't as teeming with germs as you might think, thanks to air filters that help reduce the number of microscopic viruses and bacteria. In fact, you're more likely to catch something in the airport than on the flight, says Dr. Abinash Virk, an infectious disease expert with the Mayo Clinic (www.mayoclinic.com). Still, airplanes are by no means germ-free. Follow Dr. Virk's tips for staying healthy en route to your vacation (face masks not required).

Photo Caption: If you want to guard against germs on a plane, wearing a face mask isn't necessary. Photo by Bob B. Brown/Flickr.com
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Water for sale at Dublin Airport. elefevre7
Your best bet for staying healthy on the plane? Board healthy. According to Dr. Virk, a strong immune system is the number-one defense for fighting off germs. "Get plenty of sleep before you travel -- people who are sleep-deprived get more infections than those who get adequate sleep," she says. "And stay hydrated." This will keep your respiratory tract moist, which gives you more protection against germs. Hydrating also prevents your skin from getting dry and cracked, which makes you susceptible to infections.

Photo Caption: Water for sale at Dublin Airport. Photo by elefevre7/Flickr.com
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An economy-class seat aboard an Air France A380 flight from New York's JFK to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Amy Chen
While your seat might seem like a hotbed for germs -- who knows how many people have sat there before you? -- Dr. Virk says the risk of catching something from it is quite low since your clothes provide a barrier between you and the cushion. If your hands touch the fabric, simple hand hygiene (washing your hands with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer) will take care of most germs you come in contact with.

Photo Caption: An economy-class seat aboard an Air France A380 flight from New York's JFK to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
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In-flight meal on Japanese airline ANA. hyougushi
Passengers tend to use their tray tables throughout the flight for eating, drinking, reading, and even resting their heads -- meaning these little plastic rectangles are one of the most likely spots for germs on the plane. The crew may not always have time to thoroughly wipe down each tray between flights, so it's up to you to take precautions. Dr. Virk recommends cleaning the tray with an alcohol-based hand wipe before you use it to kill any lingering germs.

Photo Caption: In-flight meal on Japanese airline ANA. Photo by hyougushi/Flickr.com
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Controls on an airplane armrest. qmnonic
If you want to be vigilant, you could always scrub the clicker with an alcohol wipe. "But do I do that?" asks Dr. Virk. "No." Instead, simply make sure you practice basic hand hygiene afterward by either washing your hands with soap and hot water or rubbing them with alcohol-based gel.

Photo Caption: Controls on an airplane armrest. Photo by qmnonic/Flickr.com
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Airplane bathroom sink. eyeliam
"Treat the airplane bathroom as you would any public restroom," says Dr. Virk. In other words, limit your contact with surfaces as much as possible. Use the paper toilet-seat cover (or place toilet paper over the seat), and try a non-touch technique when washing your hands: Use a paper towel to turn on the faucet, wash with soap and hot water, and use a fresh paper towel to turn off the faucet and to open the restroom door. Be extra careful on international flights, Virk says, since there's more of a chance of people coming back with viruses that our immune systems aren't used to.

Photo Caption: Airplane bathroom sink. Photo by eyeliam/Flickr.com
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All is in order on an AirAsia flight. gurms
Like seat cushions, armrests pose very little threat when it comes to germs. "Unless you have a skin break, you're not going to pick up anything from here," says Dr. Virk.

Photo Caption: All is in order on an AirAsia flight. Photo by gurms/Flickr.com
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Premium seat aboard ANA Airlines, Japan. hyougushi
If you're like most people, one of the first things you do when you settle into your seat is toss all your essentials -- including things you come into close contact with, like your phone and headphones -- into the seat pocket. Dr. Virk's advice? "This isn't based on a study, but I tend not to put my hand all the way into the pocket because I don't know what's down there," she says. If possible, keep your items toward the top of the pocket rather than letting them slip all the way down, where they're sure to mingle with food crumbs, dirty tissues, and who knows what else.

Photo Caption: Premium seat aboard ANA Airlines, Japan. Photo by hyougushi/Flickr.com
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