Tis the season. Everyone around you is coughing and sneezing — and your holiday plans include air travel. Although I'm generally not a germophobe, having to sit in a too-close for-comfort confined space for hours always makes me worry about catching a bug that will fell my vacation plans.
There's cause for concern. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Research reports that for every 24 hours of flight time, the risk of cold transmission is increased 23 times (compared to transmission on the ground). A subsequent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that one out of five airline passengers contracts a cold within a week of flying.
Here are several ways to avoid the plague of the post-trip common cold:
You Are What You Touch
Not too long ago, my college friend, Vikki, and I were seated beside each other on a transatlantic flight. Before we were buckled in, Vikki took out a tub of Clorox wipes from her carry-on bag and offered me one.
"What do you do with them," I asked?
"I wipe down the armrests, the remote device (which is tricky because you need to get into all the little crevices, she explained), the tray, and of course the fastener that holds the tray in place," she said. "Then I wipe the switches on the overhead light and fan. I buy lemony smelling wipes so that I don't offend any of my neighbors," she said with a nervous giggle.
Vikki is a college professor of education. Encouraged by my interest, she continued lecturing about her flight plan. "I have a few rituals when I visit the toilet as well," she said. "I hold a wipe in my hand as I open the door, wipe down and cover the toilet seat, and use a wipe when I flush and use the water faucet, and use a wipe to open the lock to exit."
I realized why she carried a tub instead of a purse pack. I started cleaning the armrest that wasn't between us. "Do everything you can to avoid using the seat pockets," she warned. "There is disgusting stuff left in those pockets," she said. I looked at the seats in front of me in a way I had never seen them before.
While it may seem extreme, Vikki's strategy makes sense. If you touch things that other people with colds have touched and then touch your face, nose, or mouth, you increase your risk of catching what they have. In a segment on his TV show, Dr. Mehmet Oz found bacteria on a whopping 60 percent of airline trays.
If you forget a tub of wipes, a small bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer carried in your purse or your pocket can help kill germs. Also, wash your hands as often as possible while you're onboard.
You Are What You Breathe
"Most infections transmitted on planes are airborne, and there is not much you can do once inside the plane other than only exhale for the entire ride," says Robert Wolfson, MD, an internist with the Mount Kisco Medical Group in Westchester County, New York.
"Passengers (or flight attendants) with colds, sinus infections, or bronchitis do not generally cancel their flight either because they don't feel they are sick enough or feel they are obligated to go through with their trip, not to mention the uncertainty of getting a refund. So the air in the cabin is like a Petri dish, and I frequently do treat respiratory infections in recent travelers," he says.
Avoid sitting in the middle seat scrunched between two people. Upgrade to a more spacious first-class seat if you can afford it. Limit face-to-face conversation on the plane, especially with toddlers with runny noses.
In case you're wondering, one of the previously mentioned studies found that recirculated air does not impact the incidence of colds.
You Are What You Drink
It's important to stay hydrated (with non-alcoholic drinks) before you board and while you're flying. Air on a plane is less humid than air on the ground. If you don't drink sufficient liquids, mucous membranes in your nose and your mouth can dry out quickly. Without this mucous barrier, germs multiply instead of being washed away. A moisturizing lip balm also can help prevent germs from falling between the cracks of your lips.
Salt water nasal sprays can help. "Before flying and every few hours in transit, use a nasal moisturizer spray," suggests Hilary Nangle, a travel writer and guidebook author. Unless you already have a cold, try to avoid antihistamines, which can dry you out.
In the days before take off, travelers often have to juggle unfinished business at home and/or work with packing and planning for a trip. To get everything done, they skimp on sleep, hoping they'll catch up when they're on vacation. Insufficient sleep can lower immunity, making an individual more prone to getting sick.
Some travelers swear by Airborne, an over-the-counter combination of vitamins, minerals, and herbs designed to strengthen the immune system. Others take Vitamin C to prevent colds or lessen their intensity, which is also thought to work by boosting immunity. Anecdotal reports suggest that these approaches work more effectively for certain individuals than others. (Check with your doctor before you use these or other products.)
The Bottom Line
The common cold usually isn't deadly but it can kill a vacation or business trip. Whether you are in the air or on the ground, preventive measures are key. "I know of no prophylaxis, including herbs and spices, conventional medications, or alternative treatments that have been shown to be effective as prevention," says Dr. Wolfson.
Prevention is partly an attitude as well. "I give dirty looks to anyone in close proximity to me who dares to repeatedly cough or sneeze in my direction," says Vikki.
Other posts on Life Goes Strong that offer Holiday Travel Tips: