If you take a crowd of people during peak holiday stress and cold and flu season, and then add in some dry cabin air and germy surfaces, you have the ingredients for an "ailment cocktail."
Contrary to popular belief, the plane air itself isn't the culprit for spreading germs. Modern aircraft are outfitted with HEPA filters to clean the air while it's circulating. So why do some people get sick after taking a flight? It comes down to two main reasons; airborne germs spread more easily when people sit in close quarters and when they touch germ-covered surfaces. Unfortunately, these factors are exaggerated by the incredibly dry conditions in an aircraft cabin because viruses prefer low-humidity environments.
You might think that the aircraft is cleaned between flights, but unfortunately it often isn't. Removing trash is one thing, but disinfecting the surfaces and thoroughly cleaning is up to each airline. Technically, the aircraft can be used dozens of times before it gets a deep clean, meaning that you have to take care of your area yourself. The tray table, the armrests, window shade and the toilet handle are all areas where bacteria can live for at least a week in most cabins. I recommend travelling with and using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and a small pack of disinfectant wipes. You can always transfer wipes in Ziploc bags if you have a bigger container at home. The first thing I do when I sit down is wipe down the armrest and tray table, because that's where my arms will be the most. Always disinfect wherever you will be spending your air time and eating.
If you can, try to use a tissue or a paper towel to open bathroom doorknobs and to touch toilet handles. I have also heard that closing the lid before flushing helps prevent the spread of germs throughout the plane bathroom. And of course, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
You never know how frequently those pillows and blankets are washed.
I personally don't take the airline pillows and blankets. I bring my own inflatable neck pillow and some layers to keep warm. You never know how frequently those pillows and blankets are washed, as they are reused between flights.
I also like to bring a decongestant with me. A cold can creep up on you during a multi-hour flight and if your ears become blocked you might have a painful landing. A decongestant will help with that.
The high altitude and low humidity of a plane has a dehydrating effect, which can cause headaches, stomach cramps and fatigue. All of this can leave your immune system unable to fight off a sickness. Stay hydrated by regularly sipping water before, during and after your flight. Do your best to avoid caffeine and alcohol as well, as they contribute to dehydration.
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I don't recommend drinking the plane tap water as it has been found to contain levels of bacteria in the past. You should also avoid coffee and tea as they are generally made from the planes water tanks. If you need caffeine fix, remember to pick up a drink in the terminal or politely ask the flight attendant to boil your bottled water.
The dry plane cabin air tends to also dry out your nasal membranes, which are the immune system's main line of defence. I like to use a nasal spray to keep everything functioning the way it should. I also put a tiny bit of antibiotic ointment at the base of my nostrils to protect myself even further, but you should consult your doctor before doing this.
Follow these tips so you don't get sick during the chaotic holiday season. Happy travels!
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