Cabin Fever

How to Stay Healthy When Flying

Did you know that bacteria on an airplane could linger for a week if the cabin isn’t properly cleaned? As you prepare for vacation travel, it is wise to take precautions to remain as healthy as possible while on a plane, or you may bring home the common cold or worse as a souvenir.

Being confined to such a small space on a plane for a prolonged period may make you more prone to sickness since you are exposed to more germs. 

“The most common type of illnesses that people are susceptible to on airplanes are colds and respiratory illnesses like flu and pneumonia,” says Dr. Randy Fedro, a family practice physician with Bon Secours Monarch Medical Associates in Norfolk, Virginia. “Viruses and bacteria can survive for hours—on tray tables, on backs of seats, in seatback pockets and on armrests—and can be contracted by contact. The influenza virus is an airborne virus and can be caught when an infected person coughs, even from several seats over. This is particularly more likely when the air in the plane isn’t circulating; for example, if the plane is sitting at the gate not running.”

Throw a bottle of hand sanitizer (no more than 3.4 fluid ounces per TSA regulations) and a travel-size package of disinfectant wipes into your carry-on and use them on anything you may come in contact with while at the airport or on a plane. Use a paper towel or tissue instead of your bare hand to touch the bathroom doorknob and toilet handle. It is also a good idea to bring your own pillow and blanket. 

“To stay healthy at the airport and on planes, first of all stay hydrated and get rest,” says Fedro. “This boosts immunity and keeps the mucous membranes moist, lessening the chance of getting sick. Hand sanitizers are helpful, as is using disinfectant wipes on your armrests and tray tables. Avoid the seatback pockets, or sanitize your hands after going into the pockets. If there are epidemic levels of influenza around at the time of your travel, a mask can prevent catching the flu.”

Dr. O.T. Adcock Jr., who practices family medicine with Riverside Medical Care Center-Mercury West in Hampton, Virginia, is more concerned with the potential development of blood clots in the legs, particularly on flights lasting more than four hours.

“Deep venous thrombosis (a blood clot that forms in a vein deep inside a part of the body) is more common and a lot more worrisome,” says Adcock.

He suggests wearing loose, comfortable clothing and slip-on shoes; avoid tight socks or belts. Since the air on an airplane tends to be drier, staying well hydrated is also vital. Blood tends to clot more in an arid atmosphere. Drinking more fluids leads to using the bathroom more often, providing an opportunity to get up and move about the cabin.

“You want to walk up and down the aisle every half-hour to an hour,” Adcock suggests. “You can also exercise your ankles, calves and feet while in your chair. Rotate your ankles. Keep moving. Exercising your lower extremities can reduce the chance of blood clots.”

Peter Glagola, director of brand management and public relations for Riverside Health System in Newport News, Virginia, developed a blood clot in his leg during an eight-hour flight to Italy two years ago. 

“I was very uncomfortable and I did not get out of my seat,” he says. “About three days in [to the trip], my right calf had a slight ache. There was slight swelling, but it was not warm to the touch so I did not think it was a clot. We went on daily trips and walked extensively. During these trips, my leg felt better. It was in the morning when the ache was most pronounced.”

Glagola went to his doctor when he returned home and learned that he indeed had a clot, which had broken off and traveled to his lungs, leading to a pulmonary embolism.

Glagola is more cautious now about being on an airplane. 

“What I do now is I wear the support hose on both legs when I fly,” Glagola says. “I do leg exercises in my seat every hour and when possible walk the aisle of the plane. Walking is not as easy as you think so I do the leg exercises to assist with leg circulation. I also start hydrating two days before I fly and during the flight. The key is moving and hydration when flying.”

And after the flight? 

“The most important advice after you get to your destination is to get plenty of rest,” says Fedro. “Your immune system should keep you healthy if you treat it right. If you are going to a tropical desitnation or developing nation, make sure you leave with your immunizations up-to-date, and always practice strict food, water and insect precautions. If you are going to a destination where medical care isn’t going to be easy to find, your doctor may send you with some medications and specific instructions on when and how to use them.”

Cleanest airplane cabins:

  • Southwest Airlines
  • JetBlue
  • Continental

Dirtiest cabins: 

  • U.S. Airways
  • American Airlines
  • United