Travel Health: 8 Ways to Avoid Germs on an Airplane
UPDATED JANUARY 27, 2020
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 wish you had driven your car instead.
Fortunately, 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. Still, airplanes are by no means germ-free. Follow these tips from Dr. Virk for staying healthy en route to your vacation.
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," she says. "People who are sleep-deprived get more infections than those who get adequate sleep. And stay hydrated." Drinking plenty of water will keep your respiratory tract moist, which gives you more protection against germs. Hydrating also prevents your skin from getting dry and cracked, leaving you susceptible to infections.
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 the cushion is quite low since your clothes provide a barrier for your skin. If your hands touch the fabric, simply 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.
Passengers use tray tables throughout flights 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 wipe down each tray thoroughly 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 order anything from the beverage cart.
If your plane has seatback screens for watching in-flight entertainment (and more and more planes don't), remember to wash your hands with soap and hot water or use sanitizer after touching the screens or punching buttons on the clicker that's sometimes attached. To be extra vigilant, clean the screen—or, these days, the little seatback personal device holder in front of you—with an alcohol wipe.
"Treat the airplane bathroom as you would any public restroom," advises 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 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 especially 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.
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.
One of the first things many passengers do when they settle into their seats is stash their stuff—including items like cell phones and earbuds that come into contact with skin—into the seat pocket in front of them. Dr. Virk's advice? "This isn't based on a study," she says, "but I tend not to put my hand all the way into the pocket because I don't know what's down there." 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. Or you could always just skip using the seatback pocket in the first place.