Flying is a lot less glamorous than it was a few decades ago, but it remains a necessity. Whether you’re flying for work or pleasure – and let’s face it, travelling for the holidays can feel like both – you’ve invested a lot in that flight, and you aren’t going to risk missing it.
And for lots of travellers, that doesn’t change if they’re sick, either. In fact, a recent survey conducted by MattressFirm of more than 2 500 travellers found that 75% said they wouldn’t cancel a non-refundable flight if they came down with a cold or flu.
Remember that stat next time you look around your flight: There’s a pretty good chance some of the travellers next to you are flying sick. But does that mean you’re destined to arrive at your destination under the weather, too?
“Planes, trains, and automobiles are the mainstay for travel during the holidays and are also the perfect breeding ground for illness,” says UCHealth infectious disease expert Dr Michelle Barron.
That’s because viruses that cause the flu and colds can live on surfaces for minutes to hours, and bacteria – which can cause things like skin and gastrointestinal infections – can live for days to weeks. Then, if you touch one of the contaminated surfaces and then your mouth or eyes, for instance, you can introduce the bugs into your own body and get sick, too
“Think about how many handles and surfaces you touch when travelling and how often these surfaces (door handles, seat trays, light fixtures) have actually been cleaned,” Dr Barron says. Well, chances are, you’ll never find out for sure – so don’t depend on that to keep you safe from sickness on your flight.
The best thing you can do is be proactive on your own: Horizontal surfaces, easy-accessible objects like tray tables, bathroom handles, and hand rails are the areas that are most likely to be contaminated by viruses and bacteria due to the frequency that they are touched, says Dr Barron.
Your move, then, is to bring a pack of antiseptic wipes with you in your carry-on. Then simply wipe the area down the surfaces in front of you, especially the ones you’re going to eat off. When you’re done, rub your hands with a hand sanitiser, too.
While you’re actually flying, keep your hydration levels up. “Having good hydration makes your mucosal membranes (the inside of your nose and mouth) less likely to dry,” says Dr Barron. That’s a problem, because that can make it easier for germs to invade.
So aim to drink 235ml or more of water per hour, and minimise alcohol intake too, which contributes to dehydration, she says. And if you’re really worried about germs – and if you just know you’ll be given a coughing, snivelling, snotty seatmate – you can take a more extreme measure of a face mask, says Dr Philip M Tierno, Jr, professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU School of Medicine.
“I was seated in front of a woman with a raging cold who sneezed and coughed continuously. It was a full plane so I couldn’t be moved. So I darned a mask so as not to get her cold!” he says.
That’s your game plan for the day of of your flight, but you actually should be prepping to stay healthy well before your plane takes off. For one, keep your immune system chugging along. “Try to eat foods like yoghurt or kefir, which contain probiotics, and fresh fruits and vegetables that are loaded with healthy vitamins and antioxidants,” says Dr Barron.
While the research on vitamin C for colds is mixed – one new study did find that taking substantial amounts of it can shorten a cold’s duration – it can’t hurt to make sure you’re eating foods rich in it, both in the weeks leading up to your trip and while you are travelling.
“Vegetables and fruits are the best sources of vitamin C, so consider packing a bag of portable snacks like grape tomatoes or berries. I personally take vitamin C a few days before I plan to travel to prepare my system for any germs in the air,” says Dr David A Greuner, cofounder of NYC Surgical Associates.
And, on the flip side, what if you are the sickie? If you absolutely must fly, at least be considerate of your fellow passengers.
“Cough into your elbow or into a tissue instead of your hands, which limits your likelihood of contaminating a surface you subsequently touch,” says Dr Barron. Use sanitising wipes or hand sanitisers liberally to try to limit continued spread.