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How to catch a flight without catching the flu

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What's worse than flying on a crowded airplane? When the passenger next to you is visibly ill.

It's enough to make you sick with dread — and often leads to catching a cold, too.

This isn't a hypothetical. Millions of Americans will take to the air across the Thanksgiving holiday. Sunday is expected to be the second busiest day to fly all year.

And by Christmas, peak holiday travel tends to coincide with peak flu season.

"During the influenza season, there is a reasonably high probability that one or more persons harboring the influenza virus will be on board," Dr. Harriet Burge writes dryly in Air Quality in Airplane Cabins and Similar Enclosed Spaces, Volume 4.

A sniffling seatmate doesn't necessarily mean you're doomed to your fate. There are some simple measures you can take to protect yourself, experts say.

Avoid germ hot spots

Microbiologists have concluded that a typical plane will have some typically germy spots — the aisle seats, the tray tables, the magazines in the seat-back pockets. Basically, "high-touch" areas where many passengers have put their hands, and which can lead to clusters of influenza, E. coli, and other bacteria and viruses.

At the Daily Briefing, we pulled together a map of those hot spots and several basic preventive measures, such as using alcohol-based wipes to clean up a tray table before you eat from it.

plane hot spots

And don't get microbiologist Charles Gerba started on the most disgusting place on a plane: the onboard bathroom.

"There is one toilet per 50 people on an airplane—unless you're flying Southwest. Then it's one toilet per 75 people," Gerba told us, when we interviewed him for the Daily Briefing a few years ago.

Gerba's advice: Stay in your seat and away from the restroom. "If you can hold it, hold it," he told us. "You're more likely to pick up something from going to the bathroom than just sitting in your seat."

Don't sit next to a sick person if you can help it

Not all illnesses are equally contagious or are transmitted the same ways — as we've been reminded by Ebola and measles outbreaks. But there are four common ways to spread an infectious disease:

  • The small particles in the air as a person sneezes or coughs
  • The large droplets that a sick person expels
  • Directly touching surfaces that have been contaminated by an infectious person
  • Direct person-to-person contact

So if you're boarding a cross-country flight and next to a visibly ill person, brace yourself: You're going to be exposed to many, if not all, of those vectors. And the longer that you're next to a sick passenger, the more likely it is that you'll get sick, too. Researchers also discovered a clear "hot zone" for infectious diseases like H1N1, which can extend several rows on an airplane.

How to protect yourself? It's nigh impossible to move to a new row on a crowded plane, but some seat-yourself airlines do allow it. And on planes, as in life, it never hurts to ask.

It's important not to get too worried about catching a cold from fellow passengers. Many people worry that just one coughing person will get an entire cabin sick, because of how planes recirculate their air. But that's largely a myth: The onboard air is purified and viruses are essentially filtered out, so long as the ventilation system is working. (However, planes will sometimes shut off ventilation when parked on the tarmac.)

Of course, a sick person may walk around an airplane — and bring his hot zone with him.

Don't place your faith in multivitamins

Over-the-counter products like Airborne and Emergen-C are wildly popular for their mix of vitamins and herbal remedies, and their sales skyrocketed after being endorsed by Oprah and others.

But there's no clinical evidence that they'll actually make you healthier. Emergen-C packs 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C into a normal dose — 10 times the daily recommended intake, and five times more than a human body can even process at a time. And vitamin C's healing powers are largely a myth.

Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission years ago charged the makers of Airborne with deceptive advertising for marketing its product as a cold prevention remedy. Airborne is now advertised as "clinically proven to boost your immune system" — which is very different from "clinically proven to fight colds."

There is value in having a strong immune system, of course. It's inevitable that for some of us, all the rushing to catch a flight raises the risk of catching a cold — we don't get enough sleep and instead do other things to wear down our immune system.

But instead of placing your faith in over-the-counter remedies, follow simple, timeworn advice. Drink plenty of water. Eat a mixed diet. And for goodness' sake, get enough rest.

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