10 Things Every Traveler Needs to Know About Airplanes and Colds

by | November 22, 2011 at 12:56 PM | General

By Andrew Bender, Forbes.com Contributor

As we enter the Thanksgiving to New Year’s travel season, you may already be dreading catching a cold or flu every time you board an airplane. According to experts, it need not be a problem, as long as you take precautions.

1. Is flying any worse for my health than other activities are?
“It is not the airplane; it is any close quarters,” says Kristen Nordlund of the Division of News & Electronic Media at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “Movie theaters, busy malls during the holiday season, anywhere there are a lot of people in a close proximity to each other. It’s also very important for those who are sick to stay home – not only for themselves, but for the protection of others as well.”

2.  But aren’t airplanes just flying germ circulators?
Actually, not so much. Contrary to popular belief, “All the newer planes – over the last decade or so – have very good HEPA [High Efficiency Particulate Air] filters.” So says Peter Katona, MD, infectious disease specialist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “So the air circulation is actually pretty good.” Translation: if you’re flying coach and someone in business class sneezes (or vice-versa), it’s probably not going to hurt you.

3. So how do people catch a cold or flu?
Mostly by contact, through a respiratory route (aerosols or particles), a contact route (such as touching, shaking hands or kissing), gastrointestinally or sexually, though you probably have to work at that last one. “If you’re within a few feet, it could be a sneeze or a cough that transmits a cold,” says Katona.

Adds Nordlund, “Cold viruses can also be transmitted when you touch things that have recently been touched by someone who has a cold and then touching your mouth, face, eyes, etc. We are constantly touching our faces without even realizing it.”

4. What preventive measures should I take?
“Stay away from sick people!” Katona advises. On the one hand, this is kind of a duh. On the other hand, it’s about the surest way to keep yourself from risk. On the third hand, humans tend to want to be social even if it means risking the occasional cold.

Nordlund calls an annual flu vaccine “The first and most important step in protecting against flu viruses,” and the CDC advises it for everyone aged 6 months or older. Each year’s vaccine protects against the three viruses expected to be most common that flu season.

“Travelers should be reminded to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly (or use an alcohol-based hand cleaner), especially after using the toilet and before preparing or eating food,” she adds.

5. What’s the difference between cold and flu anyway?
Katona says that above the neck, it’s a cold. Below and above the neck: it’s the flu. While the symptoms in your head might be the same for both (blocked sinuses, runny nose, blocked ear canal, etc), a flu is all that plus fever and symptoms like achiness.

6. If I’m starting to feel symptoms, is there a way to stop them from getting worse?
“There are naturopathic products that are supposed to do that, but I have no idea whether they actually work or not,” Katona says. “My wife thinks they do.”

“Antiviral medications like Tamiflu can help if you feel flu symptoms such as a fever and aches coming on,” he adds. But both he and CDC advise consulting a doctor first. “I wouldn’t recommend that everyone take tamiflu at the first sign of the flu, but if you’re leaving on a trip, I might consider it,” Katona says. “You should never take Tamiflu for a cold.”

7. Say I’ve been sick. How do I know if I’m no longer contagious?
Both experts agree that you’re probably OK if you’re not actively sneezing or coughing, and Katona advises no hand to hand contact. CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone without the use of medication – you probably won’t feel like leaving before that anyway.

8. Say I absolutely have to fly while I have a cold or flu. Any precautions I should take?
For the sake of others, going out except to the doctor should really be a last resort. If you must, wearing a surgical mask may help. “They do this in a lot of Asia,” Katona says.

Other than that, your mom was right. CDC’s Nordlund also advises to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, throw away used tissues (in a trash can or air sickness bag), wash your hands often with soap and water and not to share food or drink with others.

If you’re wondering “Should I wear a mask if I’m worried about getting sick?” Katona says not to bother. Masks are designed to trap microscopic contagions leaving the mouth and nose and aren’t particularly effective the other way around.

9. What could airlines do differently to further prevent the spread of colds and flu?
Both experts say that (not just) airlines could install hand sanitizer dispensers relatively inexpensively. In Japan, for example, most public places have had them for years.

Katona also advises keeping the planes clean – especially the washrooms – and asking passengers to help do the same. I wonder whatever happened to those “Please keep this washroom clean for the next passenger” signs.

And drawing on recent headlines, Katona says that when planes sit on the tarmac for hours waiting for takeoff, pilots tend to shut down the engines (and HEPA filters) to conserve fuel, trapping germs on board. Yet another reason airlines shouldn’t be doing this.

10. Whew, now that that’s out of the way, do I need to watch for other health risks while flying?
This isn’t new news, but CDC says that on-board changes in air pressure, humidity, and oxygen concentration can exacerbate other health conditions. It’s best to avoid flying with blocked ears, and you should move around to prevent deep vein thrombosis.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

 

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