Traveling by plane raises concerns about the cleanliness of your seat and potential germs during the flight.
Unseen Risks in the Air
Airplanes, often considered as "emergency rooms in the air," bring together strangers with unknown health statuses. The lack of standardized cleaning practices raises questions about the cleanliness of surfaces touched by previous passengers.
Identifying Germ Hotspots
Microbiologist Jason Tetro highlights high-exposure areas prone to germs, including the seat pocket, seat belt, tray table, and restroom handle. Surprisingly, the headrest tops the list as the most exposed and touched surface on a plane.
Results of a Swab Test
In a non-scientific test, travel reporter Andrea Sachs identified the top five germiest areas based on a swab kit. These included the bathroom sink handle, tray table, inside bathroom door handle, seat belt buckle, and armrest.
Risks vs. Reality
Dr. William Schaffner reassures that while viruses can linger on surfaces, the actual risk of transmission is lower than perceived. Viruses need human cells to multiply, and their survival on surfaces is influenced by factors like temperature and humidity.
The primary risk of contracting respiratory viruses comes from close proximity to infected individuals. Respiratory viruses like colds, flu, COVID-19, and RSV pose a threat when within three to six feet of an infected person in enclosed spaces.
Air Circulation Insights
Schaffner explains that the risk on planes is not uniform; transmission is more likely within the same row and a few rows in front of and behind an infected person. Air circulation on planes is segmented, reducing the exposure to aerosols.
Cases of passengers with contagious illnesses, such as severe diarrhea, pose a potential biohazard risk on planes. The risk increases if bodily secretions cannot be contained to the restroom, leading to potential infections among passengers.
Schaffner emphasizes the importance of hand hygiene as the primary defense against germs. Regular handwashing or using hand sanitizer can interrupt the transmission of viruses from contaminated surfaces to the face.
Masking Up for Safety
Wearing a mask provides an additional layer of protection, preventing the inhalation of droplets and aerosols. This practice, adopted during the pandemic, remains effective in reducing the risk of airborne infections.
Immunization for Added Defense
Staying up-to-date on vaccinations, including flu, COVID-19, and RSV vaccines, adds another layer of protection. Immunization is particularly crucial when traveling during cold and flu season.
This article was originally published on Dec. 20, 2023, and has been updated.