When Ricky Shetty, a frequent traveler and blogger, gets on an airplane, he usually brings a small container of hand sanitizer with him, as well as baby wipes to clean tray tables. He also avoids touching anything in the lavatory, even using a paper towel to open the door if necessary.
Shetty is one of many travelers who treat airplanes as if they were cesspools of germs and douse themselves and their seating area in antibacterial goop before settling in for a flight. Doctors and infectious diseases experts say such precautions can reduce exposure to harmful microbes, but it's important to remember that the world itself is awash in germs, so there's no way to eliminate exposure entirely.
Travelers have a legitimate reason to be careful, says Dr. Leslie Greenberg, a medical blogger, family physician, and associate professor of family and community medicine at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine. “There are many types of travel-associated infections, and some can be life-threatening,” she says.
To minimize risk, Greenberg recommends cleaning your hands before eating, after using the lavatory and before touching your face. She also suggests reviewing your vaccinations to make sure they are up to date, especially if you are traveling abroad. Travelers should consider getting vaccinated against the flu, pertussis (whooping cough) and pneumonia, she says.
Dr. Annie Ray, a family medicine physician and medical blogger, says the most effective way to protect yourself from germs is to avoid direct exposure. “That’s from the things you touch and the germs from the people next to you,” she says. She recommends wiping down your seat belt, tray table, and armrests with disinfecting wipes as soon as you sit down.
“Most contagious germs have about a 6-foot radius of spread,” Ray says. She recommends that travelers worried about germs wear a travel scarf to cover their nose and mouth if the person next to them is sneezing and coughing. She also says it’s helpful to keep the air vent open above you to help circulate the air away from you.
To some travelers, though, that advice is counterintuitive. “I always close the air vent above my seat. The thought of recirculated aircraft air blowing on my face is not pleasant,” says Mike Belobradic, a luxury travel blogger.
Belobradic says he reduces his exposure to germs by trying to book the first flight out in the morning. “The cleanest that any aircraft is likely to be, other than its maiden voyage, is when it’s been resting overnight at an airport and the cleaning crew has had time to do a proper cleaning,” he says. According to the World Health Organization’s Guide to Hygiene and Sanitation in Aviation, the guidance for overnight aircraft cleaning is more extensive than what typically takes place between daytime flights.
To some extent, travelers have no choice but to accept the risk of coming into contact with germs. When Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases doctor and spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, travels on an airplane, he doesn’t take any special precautions. “We live on a planet dominated by germs. It’s unavoidable,” he says. Even so, he recommends some everyday measures to reduce the risk of infection, and notes that because planes carry people from all over the world, the germs aboard them may be something your immune system has never encountered.
Like Greenberg, Adalja says the easiest way to protect yourself is to wash your hands frequently, especially after touching a surface that many people have touched. In general, though, he says people tend to be overly concerned with cleanliness. “If something is visibly soiled, it doesn’t hurt to clean it, but there is very little benefit,” he says. And while wearing a mask might protect you against airborne germs, Adalja says it only works if you wear it the entire time, which might be impossible if you want to eat, drink, or even talk.
The kids will be OK
Even travelers with small children can take it easy with the hand sanitizer, Adalja says. “Babies are very resilient. If a binky fell in the toilet, don’t put it back in their mouth, but for the most part, there is no such thing as the 'five-second rule,'” he says, referring to folk belief that an item that falls to the floor will be less dirty or contaminated if you pick it up quickly.
The same bacteria on the floor of the plane are already in the air, he says, so there’s no reason to worry too much when babies put toys back in their mouths after they’ve hit the floor. In fact, he says, babies raised in more sterile environments are more likely to suffer from allergies and autoimmune diseases later on.
As for Adalja’s own travel habits, he takes action to avoid germs only if someone vomits or coughs near him. “If I get visibly soiled, I might wash my hands,” he says. Otherwise, he just accepts that, like the planet we live on, airplanes are filled with unavoidable germs.