If the thought of picking up hitchhikers of the viral variety isn’t exactly on your travel to-do list, we’ve got some good news for you: it is possible to reduce your risk of catching the nasties while flying. As we Fresh American bloggers prepare to head west for the Altitude Summit in Salt Lake City, we’d like to share a few helpful tips we learned from preventive medicine consultant Jill Catalano Feig, M.D., M.P.H. Dr. Feig says, “It’s not rocket science—this is all pretty basic. But you wouldn’t believe how many people are not being careful, even during such a bad flu season.”
Watch what you touch. Sure, you can’t avoid buckling your seat belt, adjusting your tray table, or grasping the handle when you open the overhead storage bin. But we’ve all seen the guy who pulls himself along the aisle to the loo by grabbing the top of every single seat, or the gal who leisurely thumbs through the latest SkyMall while rubbing her runny nose . . . with the back of her hand. Bottom line? Don’t touch it if you don’t have to. If you do, says Dr. Feig, wash your hands with soap and water (we pack these tiny soap sheets in case of restroom outages). Keep a travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket for when you can’t get to running water. Antibacterial wipes are also helpful for de-germing surfaces before you touch them.
Keep your hands off your face. You’ve probably already got a good idea of the sheer number of viruses and bacteria on every surface inside a plane. Do you really want to give them a lift via phalangeal missile to your nose and mouth? If you must touch your face, use a tissue or sanitize your hands first.
Get some air. “The laminar flow system on planes is suboptimal,” Dr. Feig explains. “It’s supposed to channel aerosolized particles away from you, but it does not catch the particles that your seatmate sneezes or coughs directly at you.” You may be able to compensate by opening the vent over your seat to improve air circulation, but this isn’t 100 percent effective. As for those surgical masks you see some people sporting on planes? They’re not designed to prevent the inhalation of airborne particles, but rather to trap the wearer’s respiratory secretions. So don’t bother, unless you have a compromised immune system, or if you’re already sick and want to ward off a Typhoid Mary moment. (Thank you for that.)
Take your own stuff. In these fee-happy times, everyone wants to travel light. But don’t go so light that you have to rely on what the airline provides. Dr. Feig comments, “There’s no telling how often airline blankets and pillows are washed, and they do harbor viruses and bacteria.” So bring a shawl, an oversized scarf, or lightweight throw to keep you warm, and use your rolled-up coat or your own travel pillow for naptime. And if you don’t mind handling something that potentially thousands of others have lovingly fondled, by all means reach for that in-flight magazine in the seat pocket. We prefer to load up our Kindles and iPads, or else take a couple lightweight magazines and paperbacks.
Mind your diet. With the decreased amount of available oxygen in the air and the lower humidity, not to mention the dozens of hacking, sniffling passengers aboard a typical flight, an airplane cabin is basically a floating petri dish. Make your body a hostile environment by cutting back on sugar-laden snacks and drinks (this means you, dearly beloved Caramel Macchiato), staying hydrated, and eating the healthiest foods you can find. Although there aren’t many scientific studies that back up the claims of over-the-counter immune-boosting supplements and treatments, Dr. Feig says they’re unlikely to hurt and may even help. (Be sure to check with your doctor first if you have any chronic medical conditions or are on regular medication.) Annie’s favorite flu-season “cocktail” is a tablespoon of raw, unfiltered Bragg apple cider vinegar mixed into a cup of Emergen-C. We’ve also heard good things about Halo, the new oral antiseptic spray, which we’re planning to test out on our Salt Lake jaunt.
Rest up! Set aside at least 7 hours for sleep the night before your flight, and if you’re one of the lucky sorts who can pass out upright beside a bawling baby, do it. We love the classic Bucky velour travel pillow, which not only cradles your head and neck so you can get down to the serious business of snoozing, but also prevents the mortifying sleep-lean into your neighbor.
Pay a visit to the restroom. “As soon as you get off the plane, head straight for the restroom,” Dr. Feig says. “Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, and be aware of what you touch on your way out of the airport.” If you haven’t used up that bottle of hand sanitizer yet, use another squirt once you reach your car, and leave the bugs behind.