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?
I believe that you are more likely to get sick when you have a lot of people in a small space -- whether it's a plane, a bus, or an elevator.

I take great pains not to touch my nose or mouth unless I have washed my hands and I'm at home.

When I'm in public, I take vitamin C, and use hand sanitizer. (It's okay, you can call me a germ freak. I won't be offended.)

The fact is that people should be more aware of their potential to spread germs. But, it seems that they aren't, or if they are, they don't care. My behavior is a result of my instinct for self-preservation, but it's also polite to everyone around me.
When I was in college I flew often and I seemed to get sick every time I flew. I always attributed it to being canned in a metal cylinder for hours with people who had been all over the world and were carrying viruses to which I had no antibodies. Once I kicked off my shoes and a stewardess screamed at me that I could get a staph infection from the carpeting and I'd better wash my feet when I got where I was going. I meekly put my shoes back on. And washed my feet later.
Plane scared of flying
Space to tight
Recycled germs
The air has a blight.
Runny noses
An uncovered sneeze
Makes me know
Germs are in the breeze.
Is it a cough?
Is it the flu?
That's come my way
Straight from you.
What a disaster
To be trapped way up high
With free-floating germs
Infesting the sky.
GermX won't do
Airborne is a waste
And vitamin C
Leaves an after taste.
Recycled air
Filtered and conditioned
Still microbials linger
Waiting and positioned.
Jumping from one
Hopping to another
Spreading illness and misery
To everybody and their brother.

Good luck up there. I know the feeling I teach first grade in a small rural school but the germs rage on even here on the ground. Kleenex and GermX abound in our classroom. Everytime I look up someone is blowing their nose or swiping it on their sleeve. There is just no escape from germs Chris in the air or on the ground remember germs are all around!
I realized 25 years ago it is possible to get sick on an airplane, even when you are a healthy person. There are 2 preventive tactics I take. First, I wear a turtleneck or carry a scarf that I pull around my face to avoid wayward germs along with keeping the air vent on.
Second, the minute I arrive, I take a shower and change clothes, repack those same clothes in a plastic bag until they are washed. When I arrive home, I wash/dryclean everthing in the suitcase and wipe down the exteriors of other travel items with antibacterial wipes.
My family, who used to look at me like I was crazy until they got sick do the same thing now.
When my children were young I often had diaper wipes in my purse. I started using them to clean my space on the airline- the arm rests, the buttons, tray table and so on. I still use them today. I also use hand sanitizer throughout the flight and saline nose spray to keep me from drying out on long flights. After years of international and domestic travel the colds I get are usually from my kids at home.
I never worry and I never get sick from the air travel. It is all in your head- relax & enjoy your next flight!
PS. Loved the poem!
I just came back from a 14 hour flight from Switzerland on Saturday. To prepare myself both before and after my trip, I made sure I did not touch my eyes, nose, or mouth without first washing my hands with both soap and water. I also took Airborne a week before my trip and consistently throughout and even now that I'm back. When the passenger behind me sneezed, I held my breath and covered my face. Sounds crazy but after getting sneezed on last time I was in the airport and catching the most horrific cold, I make an extra effort now to try and avoid as much germs as possible. So far I haven't gotten sick yet!
I swear by using a saline spray in my nose every 20-30 minutes on a flight to keep nasal linings moist and less friendly to the cold virus. I haven't gotten sick on a flight since I started that easy regimine.
I'm sorry to disappoint you, but Airborne and water may not be the best choices, either.

Michael Shermer in the Jan 2007 Scientific American reports that Airborne contains unsafe levels of vitamin A.

The FDA reports that coliform bacteria has been found in drinking water sources on a wide variety of aircraft.

My husband and I fly often for leisure travel. We follow the same "stay healthy" guidelines when ever we're in a crowded place and not just on a plane. Try not to touch things others have touched. Use your elbow or backside to push open a door or to get paper towels in the rest room. Use your elbow also to turn faucets on/off if they are not automatic. Wash hands frequently for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. Carry wet wipes and use them on tray tables, arm rests, etc. Use Airborne before and during your trip and take extra vitamin C. Make sure you stay very hydrated by drinking extra water and juices. Also, we have found that using a nasal decongestant spray a half hour before a flight eliminated my husband´┐Żs normal sinus infection he'd come down with a few days after flying. It also helps with the painful inner ear pressure during the flight. Get up frequently to stretch, walk around and use the rest room.
It seems like for the past 10 or so years, every time I have flown I get sick. Going to the States for Christmas? By the time I landed I had a fever and runny nose. Holiday in Barcelona? Same thing by day 3. And just yesterday I got back from a weekend jaunt to Dublin and I have the same symptoms again. Sore throat, coughing, fever, and aches. I know that the evidence says that there is no more risk of getting sick on a plane than any other close quarter...but I'm not so convinced!
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