The Travel Detective

Avoiding Airborne Illnesses

plane_sunset.jpgJune 28, 2007

If you’ve been reading the stories, then you know that the U.S. government — for the first time in 40 years — imposed a quarantine on a seriously infected tuberculosis patient and airline passenger.Perhaps worse, it revealed that there’s really no unilateral protocol in place to determine who can, and cannot fly on planes.

There may be a no-fly list for security. But there isn’t a no-fly list based on communicable diseases.

And once again, it raised fears among travelers about the quality of air onboard passenger jets. Is it really possible for you to become infected, sitting in seat 23B, if the passenger in 11A is sick?

Lots of people believe the answer is yes. But when it comes to something like tuberculosis, there several factors to consider: TB is also an airborne disease — it’s spread through the air when a patient with lesions or cavities in the lungs coughs out the bacteria.

This particular patient, despite being diagnosed with an extremely rare drug resistant strain of TB, showed no signs of symptoms, which means that the likelihood of him spreading the disease throughout the airplane is statistically low.

Plane blanketBut that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be as proactive as possible when it comes to airplane health. Bacterial infections, influenza and norovirus (i.e. the “stomach flu”) can all be transmitted from person to person. Consider how many times someone has been flying in your airline seat before you boarded the plane. This also applies to headrests, armrests and tray tables.

Buy some antiseptic wipes, and when you reach your seat, lean over and wipe down the armrests, the headrests and–if leather– the seat. Take out the tray table and clean it off as well.

Then, there’s one more thing: reach up and use one of the antiseptic wipes–more likely two of them–to wipe around and on the air vent above your seat.

Then, during the flight, hydrate yourself often. Best bet: buy your own bottled water (or three) after you clear security and bring them on the plane with you…being parched is bad enough, but dehydration can actually lower your immune system, especially in low-humidity airplanes.

If you need to use the lavatory, bring those wipes with you. Wipe off the sink, the toilet set and the toilet rim. Then wash your hands thoroughly, and then use the wipes on your hands as well.

And finally (and none of us really think about this), use one more wipe on the inside door latch of the lavatory before you use it to open the door and return to your seat.

An absolute guarantee of a sterile environment? Hardly.

But by doing this basic cleanup and continuing to hydrate yourself, you’re at least giving yourself a fighting chance to reduce the chances of getting infected.

For more on air travel and health, check out The Facts on Infectious Diseases and Air Travel.

And don’t miss Catching a Plane Without Catching a Cold.