Holiday travel season is here, and with it the frustration over flight delays, long TSA lines, and ever-shrinking leg room. But there may be one more thing on that list of worries and annoyances: germs. “Planes are very germ-y. They’re used all the time with only minimal cleansing as far as microbiomes are concerned,” says Robb Akridge, who has a PhD in Microbiology, specializing in Immunology and Infectious Diseases (oh, and he’s the founder of Clarisonic, NBD). But how worried — really — should you be about getting sick from flying? And what can you do to protect yourself? We asked Dr. Robb to give us the dirty details on airplane germs.
What kinds of germs are we talking?
Planes are home to both bacteria and viruses. “The bacteria found on board are typically coliform bacteria — the best-known example is E. coli — which come from the intestinal track,” explains Dr. Robb. We’re not going to mince words: That means they’re found in poop. They can cause gastric distress and make you pretty sick, he adds. And, adding insult to injury, bacteria can last longer on a surface than viruses if they’re protected from drying out (i.e. if found inside fecal matter).
Viruses pose slightly less of a risk, since many dry out rapidly and can’t be transmitted that easily. “That means if someone coughs in the next row, chances of catching whatever they have is low,” says Dr. Robb, who also points out that there are many engineers who specialize in air quality and turnover in planes to make sure it’s a healthy environment. Norovirus is one common virus, which can last for a long time on doorknobs, seats, and faucet handles; it’s the virus you most often hear about when an entire cruise ship contracts it. It’s less likely to be found on a plane, though, since most people who have it are so sick they’re not going to fly, says Dr. Robb. But it can happen.
What are the germiest spots on the plane?
“It doesn’t take a scientist to tell you that the bathroom, specifically the toilet, is the area where you’re at greatest risk,” says Dr. Robb. “Baby changers, an array of people with different hygiene habits, and thin toilet paper that puts you at a risk for toilet paper failure…you get the picture.” It’s also where people go to get rid of body secretions (i.e. blow their nose), and those body secretions contain the germs that can make you sick.
So, how worried should we really be?
Now that we’ve sufficiently grossed you out, don’t get too stressed out. Even Dr. Robb himself isn’t super concerned: “Knowing all I know still doesn’t make me paranoid. I just use common sense.” (More on what that actually means in a minute.) The one caveat: If you have a compromised immune system, it’s worth taking extra precautions, such as wearing a mask and wiping down the seat and service tray with an alcohol wipe.
What’s the best way to protect yourself?
For the rest of us, a few simple tips will help keep you healthy. One, if you’re a frequent flyer, always make sure your vaccinations are up to date and that you’ve gotten a flu shot at least two weeks prior to traveling, advises Dr. Robb. On the plane, be extra cautious in the bathroom. Don’t touch anything with your bare hands — use a paper towel to turn on the faucet, lift the lid, and open the door. Wash your hands with hot water and lots of soap; soap doesn’t necessarily kill the germs, but it does make your skin slippery so they can’t stick to it and get washed down the drain instead, Dr. Robb points out.
At your seat, use your knuckles instead of your fingertips to push any kind of touchscreen. Avoid rubbing your eyes or nose, since germs are often picked up in the mucus lining, he adds. Finally, wash your hands as soon as you get off the plane and again once you get to your final destination. Hand sanitizers can work, too, though keep in mind not all are created equal; make sure yours has at least 70 percent alcohol, he advises.