Your chances of getting sick in the air soar if your neighbor is ill

Story highlights

  • Getting sick on a flight is unlikely unless you sit near or are served by someone who's sick
  • While flying, practice good hand hygiene, and don't touch your face

(CNN)Not all of the 3 billion people who fly the friendly skies each year around the world are in tip-top health. Conventional wisdom says that you're more likely to catch a cold (or some other illness) if you're stuck on a long flight packed tight with possibly sick passengers.

A new study found that, at least on intercontinental flights, what may make all the difference between getting sick and avoiding possible infection is where you sit and who is close to you.
Passengers within two seats or one row of someone with a respiratory illness have an 80% or greater possibility of getting sick than passengers farther away, according to the study, published Monday in the journal PNAS.
    For most in the cabin, the chance of infection was less than 3%, the researchers said.
    "Passengers should not be concerned about getting sick from somebody coughing, for instance, five rows behind them," said Vicki Stover Hertzberg, first author of the study and a professor at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing Emory University.
    The study did not compare the spread of germs in a plane to, say, a movie theater. So what's the real skinny? "The results of this study have not prevented me from flying," Hertzberg said.

    In-flight risks

    The World Health Organization says respiratory diseases like flu or SARS are mainly transmitted when a sick person sneezes, coughs or talks, causing germy droplets to be propelled into the air.
    A 1996 study found that a woman who traveled from Honolulu to Baltimore and back transmitted drug-resistant tuberculosis to at least six other passengers. Public health officials worried about in-flight spread of disease during epidemics of SARS and Ebola, both potentially deadly illnesses. However, hard