Even in a normal year, the flu can kill more than 60,000 Americans. But when a new and unknown strain of illness like SARS or the 2020 coronavirus is announced, it grabs worldwide attention. The old journalism adage if it bleeds, it leads, could just as aptly be translated into if it drips, it grips.
The world does not shut down just because a new illness is around. Life must go on. If there are travel plans in your future despite a scary season, it helps to know the facts about what's proven to mitigate the chances of catching or spreading disease.
They fly off the shelves during outbreaks, but are they surefire protection? No.
Dr. David Carrington of St. George's, University of London, told BBC News that "routine surgical masks for the public are not an effective protection against viruses or bacteria carried in the air." That is how most viruses are transmitted, and most inexpensive masks are too loose, providing no sealed air filter and leaving the eyes exposed.
Likewise, the Centers for Disease Control in the United States says you can skip face masks. "CDC does not currently recommend the use of face masks among the general public," the agency says on its official coronavirus advisory page.
There's a reason surgical staff wear masks in the operating room, but it's mostly so that doctors and nurses don't infect patients—not the other way around. Masks might help where there's splatter, coughing, sneezing, or other temporary conditions that could possibly transmit a bug via moisture droplets. But extremely fine mist can still get around masks, and eyes are another possible entry point.
Some diseases are so highly contagious that even simple masks may be suggested for face-to-face interaction, but those outbreaks are rare.
Even specialized respirators with fancy filters haven't shown themselves to be very much more effective than simple masks when used by the general population. A big reason for this? We're only human. It's hard to wear an awkward, stuffy mask for hours with perfect sanitary protocol. We usually try to touch our faces with our hands—studies show that we touch our faces, on average, 23 times an hour, and nearly half of those times, we touch mucous membranes that can absorb contagions.
So even though a person has a mask on, touching the face with unwashed hands just once could be all a virus needs to jump on board.
Remember that game you played as a kid in which the couch pillows were islands, the floor was hot lava, and if you touched the lava as you walked across the pillows, you lost?
Think of your moist membranes (nose, mouth, eyes) as the hot lava. Your goal, in overgeneralized terms, is to avoid letting them get touched by anything, including the mist generated by other people's sneezes and coughs. Your own fingers shouldn't touch moist membranes, either, unless you just washed your hands. Nail biters must show some restraint.
Purell and other hand sanitizers
Purell will protect you, right? Not so fast.
The FDA has chastised the maker of Purell for implying the product will prevent viruses such as the norovirus and the flu. While it's true that alcohol can kill bacteria and viruses (particularly ones that are "enveloped" in a protein casing), it has not been proven to treat serious ones. Coronavirus is enveloped, but so far there's no proof that Purell kills it. Maybe there will be a study that proves it one day, but without that proof, there can be no such promises. So just assume Purell is never a 100% solution.
Hand sanitizers do indeed kill off lots of nasty germs, thus protecting you from lots of things. But sanitizers are not proven to be a blanket solution.
Flu-carrying droplets can land on things such as desks or tray tables, where they're just waiting to attach themselves to unwitting hands.
Some viruses can't survive long at all (HIV is a goner almost as soon as it hits the air), but some can live for weeks or months. That's where a powerful wet wipe can be your sword and shield, killing the thing on first contact and then wiping it away in case the bullet missed. Just make sure it's alcohol-based.
It helps to check into the product you're considering. Clorox wipes, for example, say they have "demonstrated effectiveness against viruses similar to 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) on hard, nonporous surfaces. Therefore...these products can be used against 2019-nCoV when used as directed." Happily, Clorox wipes come in easy-to-carry 75-sheet packets that won't trigger TSA confiscation.
Once you get on an airplane, be sure to give that tray table, armrests, and screen a good going-over. You'll see some people go crazy wiping down everything in sight, but that's overkill. It usually suffices to wipe down anything you'll be touching, or anything you touch will touch.
And stay out of the seat pocket entirely—that is a dark, abandoned place where disinfectants have never been.
Just don't flush the used wet wipes down the toilet, even if the package says you can. You don't want to know about the horrifying, whale-size "fatbergs" that have been accumulating in the London sewers thanks to rampant wet-wipe flushing.
This can do nothing to keep germs away from you, but it can help your body deflect infection. That's because moist tissues are healthy tissues. Irritated sinuses can invite illness.
A good travel humidifier (this inexpensive one doubles as a diffuser and can even get charged up by USB) can fortify your defenses.
If your nasal tissues tend to dry out on airplanes, some nasal spray might also be for you. And stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
The British National Health Service says that yes, you can catch germs from dirty fabric, which includes shared sheets and blankets.
AirfareWatchdog reports that airline blankets may be wrapped in plastic, but they tend to get washed only every 5 to 30 days. Even if you aren't too worried about catching something, that's pretty gross.
The same goes for pillows. Don't borrow—bring.
You probably thought this list was going to be full of astounding new inventions you could purchase and pack to prevent catching the flu. But amazingly, you don't need much of a shopping list. This item (plus warm water) still makes for the most proven defense.
Keep those hands clean. Wash them often and thoroughly (one doctor says you should be able to hum "Happy Birthday" twice before you finish—which is likely to amuse whomever is beside you), and do not touch your face when your hands aren't clean.
If you must cough, do it into your elbow. If that embarrasses you, just pretend you're dabbing.
Don't cough into your hands or even a hanky, because once those touch something else, that just ups the chance of transmitting a virus through contact.