Germ Hot Spots: The Plane Edition

A couple on a planeWondering how to avoid germs, and getting sick, while traveling on a plane? Unfortunately, the risk of contracting a contagious illness is heightened when you are in an enclosed space.

Studies show that germs can travel easily on an airplane, where people are packed together tightly.

For example, a woman on a 1994 flight from Chicago to Honolulu transmitted drug-resistant tuberculosis to at least six of her fellow passengers, according to a New England Journal of Medicine study.

In 2003, 22 people came down with SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, from a single fellow passenger who had SARS but didn’t have any symptoms, according to another New England journal study.

The surfaces that have tested highest for bacteria and other infection-causing germs include:

  • Security check points
  • Airplane blankets and pillows.
  • Latches for overhead bins
  • Tray tables
  • Tv screens/monitors

Here are five ways to avoid germs while traveling on a plane, as well as when you first arrive and leave the airport.

Sit towards the front. Ventilation systems on most commercial aircraft provide better air flow in the front of the aircraft.

Try to avoid coffee or tea on an airplane. Monitoring by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that water in airplanes’ water tanks isn’t always clean — and coffee and tea are usually made from that water, not from bottled water, according to Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association.

The EPA advises anyone with a suppressed immune system or anyone who’s “concerned” about bacteria to refrain from drinking coffee or tea on an airplane.

“While boiling water for one minute will remove pathogens from drinking water, the water used to prepare coffee and tea aboard a plane is not generally brought to a sufficiently high temperature to guarantee that pathogens are killed,” according to the EPA’s Web site.

According to the EPA, out of 7,812 water samples taken from 2,316 aircraft, 2.8 percent were positive for coliform bacteria. Although that sounds like a small number, this means 222 samples contained coliform bacteria.

If possible, try bringing your own bottle of water, coffee or tea onto the plane.

Sanitize your hands after using the bathroom. Obviously, a toilet on an airplane “is among the germiest that you will encounter almost anywhere,” said Charles Gerba, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona. “We always find E. coli on surfaces in airplane restrooms.”

Since you’ll probably touch the bathroom door handle while returning to your seat, sanitize your hands again when you return to your seat.

Wash or sanitize your hands after getting off an escalator. Tests show that high-volume surfaces like escalator handrails in airports are full of germs.

Wash or sanitize your hands after using an ATMs. ATMs, especially in busy places like airports, are also full of germs.

Keeping your hands clean is crucial. Why? Because you’re touching surfaces that have been touched by thousands of people before you.

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