How to avoid getting a cold on a plane

Jason Tetro, microbiologist and author of The Germ Code, shares tips on how to combat contagious germs.

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airplane seat tray
Photo, iStock.

Air travel is convenient, fast, and easy. It’s also a one-way ticket to an unwanted souvenir — a stubborn head cold. Flights are so tightly scheduled that it’s rare for a plane to be properly cleaned before its next takeoff. As a result, gross germs and contagious cooties lie in wait for their next victim.

To avoid getting sick on your next vacay, Jason Tetro, a microbiologist and author of the book, The Germ Code, says to be mindful of these main perpetrators:

Unsanitary surfaces

The plane’s tray tables, arm rests, window pulls and seat pockets – cold bugs love to cling onto these high-touch areas. If a sick passenger sneezed and coughed his way through a flight, his germs could still be lurking when you board. “Bacteria and viruses can survive on surfaces for many hours, if not days,” says Tetro. “If surfaces are within sneeze range, they could be contaminated by cold germs.” If you touch these surfaces and then touch your nose, mouth or eyes, the cold virus could make you sick. And don’t forget the plane’s bathroom. It’s a playground for bacteria.

The solution: Use hand sanitizer after touching these surfaces, and using the bathroom. Just make sure that you use it correctly. “Hand sanitizers need 15 to 20 seconds of ‘wetness’ in order to be effective,” says Tetro. “The best advice is to count to 15 and if you don’t make it, reapply.”

It’s also smart to sanitize your environment. With a wipe containing 62 to 70 percent ethanol or isopropyl alcohol, give these surfaces a vigorous clean for about 15 seconds each.

Fellow passengers

If someone’s coughing or sneezing within 2 meters of you, their germs could make you sick if you inhale, or swallow them. Tetro says the best way to avoid these flying virus droplets is to wear a scarf. “Whenever a nearby passenger coughs or sneezes, cover your nose and mouth with the scarf for 30 to 45 seconds. After that, the virus droplets settle down, and you can put the scarf back down.” For added protection, choose a scarf made from wool – it boasts a natural antimicrobial quality.