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The post below was originally published on Hipmunk’s Tailwind Blog on January 22 by TheHipmunk

Forget snakes on a plane. Worry about the germs. Research shows that air travelers are at a higher risk for infection than people going about their daily lives.

Just how are illnesses spread on a plane? It comes down to two main factors: Airborne germs that are easily inhaled by people sitting in close quarters, or contact with germ-riddled surfaces on the plane. These factors are exacerbated by the dry conditions typical of airplanes, because viruses prefer low-humidity environments.

The good news is that, for the most part, airplanes’ air filtration systems function well enough that you’re unlikely to contract more serious illnesses. Instead, your greatest risk is contracting the common cold or a classic case of the flu.

While that’s all well and good, it may be little comfort to people who don’t particularly want to have a cold or the flu while trying to enjoy their vacation. Luckily, it is possible to decrease your risk of infection from germs on a plane. Here’s how to maximize the chances of disembarking the plane as healthy as you boarded it.

How to Avoid Getting Sick on Your Next Flight

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Wipe Down Germy Surfaces

Tray tables, armrests, and seat-back pockets are consistently found to be some of the germiest parts of a plane. Minimize contact with these germs by using wet wipes to disinfect tray tables, armrests, and seat-back pockets and/or using hand sanitizer after touching any of these surfaces.

Don’t Travel if You’re Already Sick

If you know that you’re suffering from a contagious illness, do your immune system (and your fellow passengers) a favor and don’t expose yourself to any more germs by boarding a plane.

In particular, the CDC advises that people avoid plane travel if you’re more than 36 weeks pregnant, have recently had surgery, have had a recent (serious) injury, or have a fever. In each of these cases, you’ll be traveling with a compromised immune system, which increases your risk of catching a contagious infection.

Some airlines may be lenient with rescheduling fees if you can prove that you’re sick; contact the airline to discuss your options.

Wash Your Hands (a Lot)

For the most part, your hands are your body’s primary point of contact with germy surfaces. Those germs (including cold and flu viruses) can survive on your skin for hours.

The simple fix? Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or (in a pinch) with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Keep Air Vents Open

Circulating air is key to preventing the spread of illness on a plane, so keep the air vent above you open. And don’t worry—the air pumping through the vent is filtered and safe to breathe.

Ask to Switch Seats

If you find yourself beside someone who’s hacking or sniffling, it’s okay (really!) to ask a flight attendant if it’s possible to switch seats.

Even moving just a few rows away can help protect you from a sick person’s germs. If there are no other seats on the plane, donning a face mask might help.

Plane seats

Bring Your Own Blanket and Pillow

A Wall Street Journal investigation found that airlines tend to wash their blankets and pillows only every 5 to 30 days. (Yes, you read that right.) This means that when you borrow a blanket from the airline, you’re sharing a whole lot of germs.

Avoid the issue entirely by bringing along your own travel blanket and pillow.

Close the Toilet Seat Before You Flush

The spray that accompanies flushing spreads germs throughout the airplane bathroom; closing the lid before you flush will help you avoid contact with these nasty microorganisms.

The flusher itself is also a hotbed of germs, so put a paper towel in between your hand and the flusher whenever you flush. And of course, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after using the loo.

Stay Hydrated

The high elevations and low humidity typical of airplane travel have a dehydrating effect, which can provoke headaches, stomach problems, cramps, and fatigue, and diminish your immune system’s ability to fight off infections. The simple solution? Stay hydrated by regularly sipping water before, during, and after your flight. It’s also a good idea to avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can contribute to dehydration.

There are a few caveats to this point, however. It’s best to avoid drinking the tap water available on airplanes, because airplane tap water has consistently been found to contain levels of bacteria well above U.S. government limits. Opt for bottled water instead.

For a similar reason, be sure to ask for drinks sans ice — since many planes refill their ice tanks at foreign airports, the water standards may not be up to par with what you’re used to.

Glass of water with ice

Moisturize Your Nasal Membranes

Cabin air tends to dry out our nasal membranes, which are the immune system’s main line of defense against incoming germs. Keep your immune system functioning at optimal capacity by using a nasal mist or saline nasal spray during the flight.

While all the immune-boosting strategies in the world can’t guarantee your health with absolute certainty, practicing these behaviors on every flight will give you the best chance of making it through a plane ride with your immune system unscathed.

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Megan is an Australian Journalist who has been travelling and blogging since 2007, with the main aim of inspiring others to embark on their own worldwide adventure. Her husband Mike is an American travel photographer, and together they have made the world their home.

Committed to bringing you the best in adventure travel from all around the globe, there is no mountain too high, and no fete too extreme! They haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on their list.

Follow their journey on Facebook, TwitterYouTube, Pinterest and Instagram.

    28 Comments

    • Thanks for sharing your knowledge Roy – I had no idea that the air needs to be switched out 6 times an hour to stay germ free.

      Really interesting point about the hand sanatizers too – they’re my go to, and I usually have two in my handbag at all times for emergencies :S!

  1. That first line is hilarious “forget snakes on the plane”. I definitely worry about being hydrated on a plane because I usually get sick. Great tips all around.

    • Lol glad you liked that one Sarah! – yes, staying hydrated is something I try and stay vigilant with while on the plane. I usually purchase a big bottle of water to take onto the plane with me after I’ve cleared security just in case I can’t get my hands on bottled water on the plane :)

  2. Good tips! I never am hydrated enough because I always sleep really well on planes. This is great but a side effect is that I always seem to wake up with a cold!

    • Thanks Laura! I envy you a little for your ability to sleep well on planes! Try keeping a bottle of water with you so that you can have a drink as soon as you wake up and don’t have to wait for the flight attendants to come by :)

  3. Wait, what?!?!? The blankets in plastic bags aren’t clean????? I always just assumed they were!

    • So did I!! Sometimes I think maybe ignorance really can be bliss lol!! But yes, highly recommend traveling with your own light blanket and pillow if possible :)

  4. I’ve always heard about the nasal spray and still haven’t tried it. On my next long flight I’m definitely going to buy it. Also, love the tip about the Air Vent. I always close it because I’m cold, but I’ll think twice the next time I decide not to use it :)

    • I’m always so tempted to close mine too (the air vent) because it does get cold, but circulating the air is so important that I usually rug up instead :)

      Definitely give the nasal spray a go on your next flight!

  5. All pretty sensible precautions to take. Personally I would really hate to get on board a plane if I am sick, unless there is no other alternative.Regarding washing the hands (a Lot), am on safe turf as the wife has OCD and ensures hands are washed very, oh! very frequently.

    • I recently had to do it coming home from China, I caught a cold while over there and still had it when I had to catch my return flight home. No avoiding it really.

      But practicing as many precautions as you possibly can, and as you said, making sure you’re washing your hands as frequently as possible, are the best preventative measures you can take :)

  6. These are some great tips! I seem to get a sick often when I travel and especially when I fly. So I should probably start taking these on board. It’s a good suggestion about switching seats – sort of unrelated but recently there was a girl with a therapy dog on the plane. The lady sitting close to her was allergic to dogs and they moved her.

    • Thanks Chantell! Sorry to hear that you get sick quite easily when you fly – definitely start implementing these precautions if you’re not already, hopefully it will help on some of your upcoming travel.

      I hadn’t even thought about animal allergies on planes – that’s a really interesting point though, because I know a lot of airlines are starting to allow people to take their small pets with them inflight. Good to know that they’re willing to move people around though to avoid passengers getting sick.

  7. Lol my husband religiously packs wet wipes to disinfect everything. I always think its funny cause he looks like a parent preparing the area for our child…..but we dont have one! Hahaha :)

    • Haha that’s amazing Andrea – ultimately though, I’ve started to realize that you can never be too careful when it comes to health on a plane!

  8. Great tips! I didn’t know that about the pillows and blankets! Gross! I thought they’d be new every flight. I don’t think I’d have the heart to request to change seats to avoid sitting with a sick person, though.

    • It gives that impression with the shiny new plastic bag right!! Changing seats is a difficult one when you’re obviously sitting next to the person and you don’t want to offend them. If the flight isn’t full and there are spare seats in other rows I usually just make a quiet seat change without causing fuss.

  9. The fact that those blankets and pillows are so rarely washed made me vomit a little in my mouth… This is a post that even though it’s incredibly informative I’m definitely NOT sharing with my husband because the germaphobe that he is would never get back on a plane! Haha

    • Haha maybe in that case then ignorance is bliss??! :D

  10. Ahh these are great tips! I ALWAYS find myself getting sick after flying, though sometimes it’s unavoidable getting on a flight with a cold :( Hand sanitizer is always handy though!

    • Hand sanitizer all the way! Yes, the reality is that sometimes you’re going to have to get on a flight with a cold. Hopefully though the above post helps with ideas for enough preventative measures to keep that at bay :)

  11. Hard to forget the whole snake thing…..LOL! I would totally flip if I saw a snake slithering down the wall near me. Thankfully that is so rare, right????? :)

    Great tips – clorox wipes are your friend. :) I’m glad you are spreading the word. The more people that help keep the plane clean the better, right? Keep those germs at bay!

    • Haha very hard!! One of those images which gets seared into the brain :D Thankfully I think the scenario has only occurred on the silver screen!

      Thanks Natalie – agreed on clorox wipes … they are always my friend! And absolutely to spreading awareness … if each of us started altering our habits a little bit, it would go a long way to keeping sickness at bay!

      Healthy travels :)

  12. Great tips indeed! I travel often but I didn’t know about the fact that I have shared a whole lot of germs from a blanket from the airline..! I should bring my own one from next time.

    • We’ve started traveling with our own just for peace of mind after having heard this! Glad we could help … happy travels! Stay healthy out there :)

  13. Tip: don’t drink alcohol before or during the flight…

    • Yes that’s a good one!

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