Surely you've seen them: the growing legions of germ-aware folks who use a paper towel to open public restroom doorknobs and won't sit on a public toilet seat without some sort of paper guard.
As the holidays approach, you may want to stop making fun of these people, and start following their lead, especially if you are one of the millions of people who are planning on flying this season.
In fact, a recent study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research shows that you are 100% more likely to catch a cold while flying than when going about your normal routine. So, what's the intrepid traveler to do to avoid arriving at Aunt Ida's with the flu? Here are some tips:
- Exit, stage left. Ask for a seat in the exit row. Not only will you have more leg room, but a sneeze can travel up to three feet, and the exit row will provide a safe zone. The second best option is to choose a seat up front in the plane because the air is fresher (not much fresher, but inside of a sardine can, you take what you can get). Most important, you want to avoid sitting within six to eight rows of the bathroom at all costs.
- Beware the bathroom. According to Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, airplane bathrooms are "a disaster." In all of the studies he's performed, E. coli has been present in "huge concentrations" on every airplane bathroom on every surface, including the faucet, the door, and the sink. Since the measly drip of water doesn't adequately clean your hands because it shuts off every three seconds, experts recommend that you wash your hands and then use an instant hand sanitizer. (I like the individually wrapped Purell wipes better than the gel sanitizers: The wipes are easy to put in your pocket and they do a better job of wiping off dirt and grime from your hands. You can order these online).
- Give your tray table a wipe. Besides the bathroom, tray tables are one of the most contaminated surfaces on commercial planes. Just consider how many panicked parents have used your tray table as makeshift diaper changing station in an explosive diaper emergency. If you don't want to be seen wiping your tray table (Who cares if people think you're neurotic?) at least use hand sanitizer or a wipe before you indulge in your in-flight lunch of four pretzels and bag of air.
- Pack your own pillow. If the flight attendant offers you a pillow or blanket, say "Thanks, but no thanks." Due to rapid "cleanings" between flights, you could very likely be using a pillow that fifteen other people have drooled on that day. While cold and flu viruses typically live on hard surfaces easier than on soft ones like pillows or blankets, it's possible to contract something from the linens.
- Your nose knows. The humidity on most commercial airliners is about 10 percent or lower, which dries out your nose and throat, making them more susceptible to invaders. To keep mucous membranes well-lubricated, drink lots of fluids (Sorry, alcohol or a caffeinated grande latte doesn't count!). Some people coat the inside of their nose with Vaseline or use a nasal spray before boarding (Check with your doctor first).
- Keep track of your hands. Hand-washing is the number one thing you can do to minimize your risk of getting sick, since every surface in the plane has been touched by or hacked on by at least 50 other people. Also try to avoid touching your face with your hands.
- Give your immune system a boost. Many travelers take Airborne in the days prior to their flight and are vigilant about vitamins, especially vitamin C. Whether these methods are effective is still debated, but one thing's for sure: Sugar and lack of sleep depress the immune system, so try to eat healthily and get as much rest as you can before the holiday party-fest commences.
- Don't worry; be happy. Studies show that happy people get sick less often, so sit back, ignore the cacophony of sneezes from 22C, and enjoy your flight.
Think of it this way: You can board a plane and risk picking up a cold on the way to someone else's house, or you can stay home and host the family meal yourself (Think cleaning, shopping, chopping, mashing). Either way, it's going to take you about a week to get yourself back together.
Which would you rather sit next to: A crying baby or a sick person?
Allison Janse is the coauthor, along with Charles Gerba, Ph.D., of The Germ Freak's Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu, which has been translated into three languages. She is a mother of twins, who were born premature, which lead to her interest in germ avoidance (a pursuit that is now near-impossible since her children spend their days in the petri dish called preschool). She is a freelance writer and editor of many lifestyle and wellness books, including Never Be Sick Again, The Gold Coast Cure, and The Sleepeasy Solution.