Monday, February 19, 2007
Just plane scared of flying...
I am sitting on a flight from New York to Asia and I am on high alert. No, not for terrorists - for an entirely different, far more insidious threat: airplane germs. They are lurking everywhere. The kid in front of me refuses to cover her mouth as she coughs up her young lung. The person next to me blows her nose as if she's allergic to the airplane itself. On line for the toilet, the guy in front of me rubs his eyes and touches the latch. I can't escape the infectious bacteria. Five hours into the flight, I'm convinced I feel a tickle in my throat and early signs of a sniffle.
I try to assuage my fears by remembering the scientific evidence. The World Health Organization, backed by a decent list of reputable studies, says there is very little risk of transmitting any infectious diseases on board an airplane. One study from the Journal of the American Medical Association says that the risk of getting a cold or any other communicable illness is no different on an airplane from any other situation where people are in close quarters: a train, a bus, a theater or even in the office.
I try not to think too hard about the air in the passenger cabin. Just how do they clean it? Most airlines, it turns out, recirculate about half the air inside the plane. Viral particles, fungi and bacteria are removed by special filters.
But still, on this long journey, antibacterial hand sanitizer is my best friend. I use it compulsively. I overdose on Airborne and Emergen-C in hopes of helping my immune system fight any nasty germs that make it past the hand sanitizer. I turn on my air vent because some experts think the rush of air can help push away the germs that float into your space. I even consider the benefits of a surgical mask, but realize just how silly I would look.
I realize that there are far more serious problems to worry about. Bloating, gas expansion, dehydration, deep vein thrombosis (known to some as "economy class syndrome"). I get up and walk around every few hours. I am sure to drink as much water as possible, even though I know the flight attendant would prefer that I press my call button just a little less often.
Twelve hours into the flight I know that I have done everything possible to avoid getting sick. I am feeling better, until I look up and see little cartoon figures on the screen. It's cute at first, but I realize they're warning me to avoid contact with birds and bird droppings. They're speaking Chinese with English subtitles. They direct me to watch for persistent cough or flu, within two weeks of my journey. If I notice anything, I should fill out a communicable disease survey form and alert quarantine officers. Oh, and if I experience symptoms, I should be sure to wear a mask, the cartoon squeals in its high-pitched voice. That's just great. Now, I have to worry about bird flu. Maybe, I should have worn a mask after all.
Even though I know I have an infinitesimal risk of contracting bird flu or any other serious disease on an airplane, I gear up as well as possible to lower that tiny risk. What do you do to stay healthy on a plane? What are some of your tips? Do you believe you're more likely to get sick during or after a plane ride?
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