Does flying make you sick?

February 24, 2014
By

Every week more and more Beacon Hill families lift off from Logan, packed shoulder to shoulder with others in giant aircraft heading to ski areas, beach resorts and family compounds for much-deserved school vacations.

And many of them will arrive back home with stuffy noses, itchy throats and annoying coughs. Airplane passengers, it turns out, are 113 times more likely to catch a cold during a flight than during normal daily life, according to Yahoo Health.

Most passengers believe the air recirculating within the plane is responsible for spreading germs and bacteria. But, that’s not true. “The air on the plane is completely replaced with fresh air, every two minutes by volume,” said Jeremy Howell, a pilot who flies the Airbus A320 for Dragonair, an international airline headquartered in Hong Kong.

That means the cabin air is completely refreshed up to 30 times per hour, compared with just 12 times per hour in an office building, according to a NBC news report referenced by Daryl Pomicter, Beacon Hill’s longtime representative on the Logan Airport Community Advisory Committee. In addition, on most aircraft air is circulated through hospital-grade HEPA filters, which remove more than 99 percent of bacteria, as well as airborne particles that viruses use for transport.

In other words, the air you breathe at cruising altitude is most likely significantly cleaner than just about any you’re liable to find on the ground.

If it’s not the air that’s spreading the germs, why are so many passengers getting sick?

“If you put 300 people that close to each other for that long, even on a mountain top you are going to stand a good chance to catch something,” said Howell.

The most common way to pick up someone else’s bug when flying is by touching surfaces already contaminated with germs and by failing to stay hydrated.

Most commercial planes fly at elevations between 30,000 and 35,000 feet, where humidity is well below the 15 percent required to keep nasal passages moist. When the mucus membranes get dry, it inhibits the natural drainage system that carries any viruses or bacteria encountered down to the stomach to be flushed out.

Drinking water keeps the mucus membranes moist and better equipped to fight germs, according to Yahoo Health. Consider drinking a bottle of water before boarding the plane, and then keep on refilling it throughout the flight.

Use a saline nasal solution or mist to keep nasal passages moist, or try applying a small amount of Neosporin or petroleum jelly just inside the nostrils. The steam from hot drinks, like tea, hot chocolate or just plain hot water, is also an effective way to keep mucous membrane moist.

Avoid drinks that dehydrate, like coffee and alcohol.

“Of course, there are some things that we can not control, like who is assigned to sit nearby. But, my number one “prevention strategy” is frequent and thorough hand-washing,” said Temple Street resident Becky Mulzer, who has recently spent time both in Africa and southeast Asia.  “In preparation for a trip with a high risk of germs and bacteria, I was once told by a doctor at the MGH Travel Clinic how to properly wash my hands…thirty seconds or more that includes washing between fingers, under nails, top and palms of hands.  Most of us normally spend about half that time and only focus on our palms. Along with thorough washing, I also try to avoid touching my face.”

That’s good advice. In fact, flying on an airplane is one case in which being a germophobe makes sense.

Rhinoviruses that cause the common cold can live up to three hours on shared surfaces such as armrests, tray tables, remote control devices, seatbelt buckles and TV touch screens, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, so pack disinfectant wipes to clean them.

Don’t stash personal items such as eyeglasses and Kleenix in the seat pocket where others may have discarded used tissues but leave them instead in your carry on. Bring your own reading material rather than reading the airline magazines, already handled by many. Wear gloves or use a tissue or paper towel when touching bathroom doors, faucets, and overhead compartment handles. Bring your own pillows and blankets.

Finally, avoid aisle seats that are frequently touched by passengers steadying themselves while walking in the aisle. A Center for Disease Control and Prevention survey discovered people in the aisle seats were most likely to catch illnesses from other passengers.

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