For years, practically every single time I flew — whether for business or pleasure — I got a cold. I hate being sick. I especially hate being under the weather when I’m traveling. So I did a systematic analysis of why I was catching colds from plane travel, reviewed the latest research and developed a game plan that works.
The odds of catching a cold or flu when you fly are sky high. One study found that when a plane sat on the tarmac for three hours without circulating air, 72% of 54 people got sick within two days from a flu strain that was linked to a single passenger.
But, do not despair. There are some concrete things you can do to help avoid bringing home a fever-cough-and-sore-throat-souvenir. And honestly, once I started doing these things I haven’t caught an airplane- or airport-induced cold since.
- Boost your immune system before the trip. For a day or two before you plan to fly, get plenty of sleep and eat right. Get plenty of exercise. Take 500 mg to 1500 mg a day of Vitamin C. (You can’t overdose on Vitamin C because your body eliminates what it doesn’t need through your urine). Think of your flight almost as if you’re planning to run a marathon.
- There’s no data about how often security bins are cleaned. I’d wager that most have never been wiped off. When you’re done with security, step into a rest room and wash up. It also wouldn’t hurt to clean off your carry-on items with an antiseptic wipe.
- Consider every airplane surface to be full of germs. The airlines say they thoroughly wipe the plane’s inside surfaces — like tray tables — about once a month. Just imagine how many people have touched your armrest, seat belts, and tray tables before you sit down. Bring a slew of disinfectant packets with you and thoroughly wipe off these surfaces before you settle in.
- Don’t touch the seat-back pockets. They are virtually impossible to disinfect. Bring your own reading material and avoid the airline magazine catalogs such as SkyMall. Even the safety instructions card is probably gross. Watch the safety video.
- Don’t use airline blankets or pillows. Grab your coat or jacket if you’re cold and bring an inflatable soft pillow if you like.
- Treat the onboard bathroom like a giant germ pool. If you need to lift or lower the toilet seat, use a tissue. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water even though the water keeps going off automatically. Use a paper towel to push the gizmo that drains the sink (since the sinks in airport bathrooms typically don’t drain on their own). Also use a paper towel to open the door as you exit. And when you get back to your seat, use a hand sanitizer .
- Use a hand sanitizer before you eat or drink during the flight.
- If you end up seated next to someone who is sick, talk with the flight attendant to see if you can change seats. Just explain to your seat neighbor that you don’t mean to offend him or her, but you need to avoid getting sick.
- Stay hydrated. Not only does this help prevent blood clots, it will help keep your nose and throat passages moist. Some people also use saline sprays. Avoid alcohol because it will dehydrate you.
- Get up and walk up and down the isle hourly. That helps prevent blood clots, muscle stiffness…and boredom!
I’ve had people watch me carefully clean off my tray table, seat belt and arm rests with antiseptic wipes. They have laughed at me, cracked jokes, or just snickered. But I get over it and you should, too. Because three days later, when you’re snowboarding in good health in Aspen, or acing a business meeting across the continent, or happily sitting around the fire talking with your family, you can just imagine the person who made fun of your prudent antics is now stuck in bed, feeling miserable.
Do what you can to avoid getting sick from the masses.