Travel Smart: Avoid Getting Sick on the Plane
By: Ilana Reichert
Nothing kills the buzz of your trip faster than a coughing fit brought on by a bug you caught on the plane. With so many people traveling together in a confined space, sharing the same air, it’s inevitable that the plane can feel like an airborne petri dish. And with swine flu now rearing its ugly head around the world, travelers have the additional fear of contracting the contagious disease.
Beat Swine Flu on the Plane
Back in April, Joe Biden remarked that neither he nor his family members would be getting on a plane or any other confined space for fear of catching swine flu. But the reality is that you can avoid catching the disease by following some precautions.
First of all, stay calm. The air on a plane is not as bad as many people believe. Fresh air is constantly circulated into the plane, in addition to the air that is already there before takeoff. And though 50 percent of the air is recirculated, it goes through special filters each time. It’s not an ideal situation—especially on long international flights—but nor is it hopeless. As long as the plane’s ventilation system is working properly, your exposure to disease through the air is reduced.
To further minimize your risk, there are a few key actions that you can take:
• Hand hygiene really works. Dr. Mark Gendreau, senior staff physician and vice chairman of emergency medicine at Lahey Clinic in Massachusetts told CNN.com, “Sanitize your hands before eating, drinking and after retrieving something from the overhead bin or returning from the restroom, and you have just cut your chances of getting infected by at least 40 percent.”
Swine flu, says Gendreau, is spread when people cough or sneeze—the droplets bearing germs travel a few feet, contaminating any people or objects within that distance. So your chair, your foldout table, and your armrests are all potential germ carriers. By washing your hands constantly—either with soap and water or with hand sanitizer—you are significantly reducing the risk of becoming contaminated by the germs that made their way to objects that you touch. Be sure to wash right, though—hand washing is only effective if your scrub your hands with soap or hand sanitizer (with an alcohol content of at least 50%) for a minimum of fifteen seconds.
• Ventilation is important. The good news is that your plane most likely has a ventilation system in place already, which operates as long as the plane is in the air. (Long delays on the ground are another story!) But you can contribute to the ventilation you get by pointing the air conditioning vent above your seat to blow across the front of your face, so that any incoming germs will meet this wall of air and dissipate.
• Surgical masks, which are popular in the Far East for the purpose of protection against germs, might seem like an overreaction but are a good idea if know you are traveling to a country that has been hard-hit with swine flu. You may feel silly wearing one, but it will protect your mouth from airborne particles.
Protect Yourself From Blood Clots
Those long hours in a stationary position on the plane can cause deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which can be fatal if it is left untreated.
Here are some steps to prevent DVT:
• Make sure to drink a lot of water, and cut down on alcohol and caffeine. The plane air is dry, which causes you to dehydrate much more easily than you would otherwise, and this dehydration puts you at greater risk for blood clots.
• Get up from your seat every hour or so just to walk around. While sitting, flex your feet so that your calf muscles are working, which creates blood flow in the legs.
• Pregnant women or others who may be at risk for DVT should consider wearing elastic support stockings during the flight.
If after your flight you experience pain or swelling in your leg, call a health care provider immediately. If the pain is accompanied by shortness of breath, the situation is all the more serious and requires emergency medical attention.
Paying attention to your health during the long hours on the plane is an investment of time and effort that will pay off in the long run.