How to avoid getting ill on a plane… six ways to beat the risk of bugs while flying

Making money from aircraft is a 24-hour business for airlines, with thousands of passengers pushed through individual cabins on a daily basis. However, the financial pressure inevitably results in fast turn-around times that render it impossible to ensure cabins and on-board facilities receive a deep clean before each flight… leaving passengers at increased risk of picking up bugs.

With the large amounts of passengers passing through each plane on a daily basis, there’s plenty of opportunity for bacteria to take up residence, but following a few simple tricks can easily keep the bugs at bay. Here are some areas to avoid and actions to take for illness-free air travel.

Seat-back pocket

Seat pockets... like groping around in germ-filled unlucky dip

Seat pockets… like groping around in germ-filled unlucky dip

What’s the problem: From secondhand sick bags to used tissues and soiled nappies, these pockets will have hosted them all – and should be no-go zone for probing fingers. Research by the US-based Federal Aviation Administration Centre and Delta Airlines, found that superbug MRSA survived for up to 186 hours in the seat pocket.

Health fix: This is easy… simply keep away from the pocket and ensure kids do the same if you’re travelling with the family.


Who are you sharing your armrest with?

Who are you sharing your armrest with?

What’s the problem: Don’t settle down and get comfortable just yet… the armrest on your seat is another favourite haunt of sky-high bacteria. Researchers from Auburn University’s Department of Biological Sciences found that E.coli O157:H7 (that’s the nasty one) could live for up to 96 hours on armrest material. With anything up to 10 people using the same seat in any day and limited cleaning taking place, this leaves plenty of potential for contamination and exposure to bugs.

Health fix: Most armrests will be free of the most dangerous bacteria described here, but it’d certainly be sensible to give them a swipe with disinfectant wipes and cover with an old cloth or towel you’ve brought with you (throw away after use). Regular applications of a sanitiser spray or gel on hands and arms should also prevent risk of infection.

Tray tables

The food might be tasty... but what's been on the tray table?

The food might be tasty… but what’s been on the tray table? image credit

What’s the problem: Would you eat your meal off a baby change table? Possibly not, but this is just one of the ‘alternative’ uses passengers have been known to use the tray table for. Charles P. Gerba, a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, swabbed the tables on eight flights and found four out of six tested positive for the superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), while vomiting and diarrhoea-inducing norovirus was found on one.

Holiday health fix: It’s time to reach for your disinfectant wipes again! Give the table a clean using two or three wipes, then dispose to reduce the risk of spreading the bacteria later on. You should also give your hands a clean with a sanitiser spray or gel after cleaning the table and before each meal.

Go prepared to battle the plane bugs

Go prepared to battle the plane bugs

Aisle seats

Boffin say aisle seats are bad for your health... find out why here

Boffin say aisle seats are bad for your health… find out why here

What’s the problem: As if competition for window seats wasn’t fierce enough already, it seems that sitting next to the aisle can leave you at greater risk of being exposed to germs because you’re closer to passengers heading to and from the plane’s toilets. The same people will also hold on to the seats as they walk down the aisles – possibly spreading more germs as they do.

Health fix: Book your seats online ahead of arriving at the airport. It might cost a little extra on certain airlines, but well worth it to help dodge the misery of a holiday illness. Book away from aisles and loos. Click here for costs and how to book the best seats on your plane.

Drinking water

If the water comes in a glass... it's probably best to politely refuse and ask for a bottle

If the water comes in a glass… it’s probably best to politely refuse and ask for a bottle

What’s the problem: Flying makes us dehydrated, but you might want to be a little choosy when it comes to replenishing your fluids. Alcoholic, caffeinated and sugar-charged drinks aren’t ideal when flying, but choosing water won’t always be the smart answer at 37,000ft. Research has found samples of airline ‘tap’ water containing microscopic tummy-botherers ranging from salmonella and staphylococcus to insect eggs.

Health fix: Most of what you’re served on planes will be perfectly safe bottled water, but if the attendant pours from a pitcher then it’s time to splash out on a juice or bottled H20. You might want to hold the ice, too, just to be on the safe side. Don’t use the loos for a pre-landing freshen-up, either; brushing your teeth in bathroom tap water could leave a distinctly bad taste in your mouth. Make sure you buy plenty of fresh bottled water before you leave.

Plane toilets

Remember to flush with the lid down and give your hands a good scrub

Remember to flush with the lid down and give your hands a good scrub: image credit

What’s the problem: With hundreds of passengers using the plane’s loos, it easy to see why it could become an incubation chamber for bugs. With the motion of the plane and the close proximity of basin to bowl, there’s plenty of opportunity for cross-contamination.

Health fix: According to many experts, the door latch is likely to be a high-risk area, so make sure you give your hands a good scrub with your alcohol gel after you’ve left the loo. Additionally, putting toilet roll on the loo seat is said to increase your risk of infection – as bacteria find it easier to grab onto the coarse material, whereas the smooth plastics on seats are designed to make it harder for them to latch on. Also, make sure you close the lid before flushing – or you could be enveloped in a cloud of mist from within the bowl!


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