Coronavirus and flying: expert advice on how to avoid catching Covid-19, other infectious diseases on flights
- Expert tips from medical professionals to help you avoid getting sick whilst flying
A lot of people currently won’t or can’t travel. With the spread of the novel coronavirus, countries, companies and airlines are limiting, or even banning certain trips.
It makes sense: the situation is complicated by the fact that travellers can show no or few symptoms, board a plane, and be almost anywhere in the world within hours.
It’s not only Covid-19 that can spread this way. Passengers with the common cold or flu can board a plane and spread their illness to other passengers.
But whether you have no choice but to travel while the epidemic rages, or you just want some good advice for when normality resumes, here are 12 top tips to help you avoid germs the next time you fly.
1. Have all your vaccines before you travel
Certain destinations require vaccinations or medicines for diseases including malaria and typhoid, but even a flu shot can help your body defend itself, according to Dr Scott Weisenberg, the director of travel medicine at New York University’s Langone Health centre.
Being properly vaccinated will help prevent catching an infectious disease that would weaken an immune system and potentially lead to the contraction of additional diseases, such as Covid-19.
2. Wash your damn hands
“Wash your hands and avoid touching your face and eyes,” New York-based emergency medicine physician Dr Salvatore Pardo said.
The practice is an easy way to prevent the germs that our hands touch in communal areas from reaching our mucous membranes.
Hand sanitizer is also a valuable alternative; make sure you take bottles that meet the liquid requirements of the country you’re leaving (generally 100ml).
3. Carry disinfectant wipes wherever you go
Airlines do employ cleaners to ensure aircraft are cleaned, but a flight delay or the pressure placed upon airport staff to ensure flights depart on time means that aircraft sometimes don’t receive all the cleaning they require.
“If you can bring a disinfectant wipe on board to wipe your seating area around you as you sit down, do so,” Pardo said.
Passengers bringing their own wipes should ensure that the parts of the seat that are most susceptible to being touched are covered. The seat cover, tray table, armrest, seat-back pocket, headrest, seat-back screen, overhead air vent, in-flight entertainment screen, and window shade should all be wiped.
4. Avoid people altogether
“Stay away from people who are coughing or exhibiting any other signs of a respiratory illness,” Dr Bernard Camins, the medical director for infection prevention at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York, said.
But while the majority of flyers won’t be chartering a private jet, they can choose seats away from other flyers.
“For the flu, close contact is considered three feet [90cm]. For the novel coronavirus, close contact is considered six feet,” according to Camins.
The aisle is frequently traversed by bathroom-goers, flight attendants, and just plain potential germ carriers, meaning it’s best to avoid for minimum exposure. The window seat on most airliners is often the furthest from the aisle, which can give flyers a modicum of protection from the germ highway that extends the length of the aircraft.
5. Don’t be a neighbour
“The main risk is people in the rows [and seats] around you,” Pardo said.
If you’re on a moderately full flight, increase your chances of having an empty seat next to you by being diligent about seat selection at check-in and in the hours leading up to the flight. But the best way is to ask your gate agent when you get to your gate.
The seat map for a flight tends to solidify as boarding nears, as that is when the airline will assess who will actually be on the flight. In the time between check-in and boarding, a seat map may change as passengers miss check-in windows, elite flyers get upgraded, and travel plans change based on delays or cancellations.
Asking the gate agent whether or not anything has opened up just may yield some better and more up-to-date results than checking the seat map at the check-in kiosk when you arrived at the airport. The seat map isn’t 100 per cent confirmed, however, until the boarding door is closed.
6. Limit your trips to the loo
“Avoid high-contact areas such as the bathrooms,” Weisenberg said.
With everything from the doorknobs to the flush buttons being touched by multiple passengers on any given flight, the potential for coming into contact with harmful pathogens is high.
Pardo also recommends avoiding the areas on a planes touched by the greatest number of people, and the lavatory ranks among the highest on that list.
If you absolutely need to go (and if you’re on a long-haul flight, you really should need it at least once) wash your hands properly before exiting, and use hand sanitizer when you get back to your seat.
7. Masks might be worth wearing on-board
In general, the advice is that you only need to wear a mask if you are ill, caring for someone who is ill, or you are a medical professional.
“Unless you are in a healthcare setting, a face mask should only be worn by someone who has symptoms of a respiratory illness or if you will be in close contact with someone with the novel coronavirus infection,” Camins said.
“Currently, the N95 masks are the highest level masks which protect against most pathogens,” Pardo said. That doesn’t mean they should always be worn.
But seeing as being on an aeroplane requires being in close contact with other people and coronavirus has a two- to 14-day incubation period during which it can be transmitted, however, it’s probably worthwhile on a plane, according to Pardo.
“Plain surgical masks are likely to be effective due to [coronavirus] likely transmitted by droplet,” Pardo said.
8. Blast that recycled air
The most common gripe with air travel is the so-called recycled air flowing through the cabin, but circulated air can do more good than harm.
“Most if not all of modern commercial planes have HEPA filters that will filter the air of respiratory droplets,” Camins said.
Most aircraft have air vents above each seat to dispense this clean air directly to passengers. There’s research that the air from these vents, when forced directly down on the seat occupant, can insulate from lingering, unfiltered air.
The air may be dry, however, so flyers should ensure they’re compensating by drinking water.
9. Bottoms up – as long as it’s water
“Dehydration can contribute to a weak immune system. Don’t try and hydrate with caffeinated or alcoholic beverages ... those will contribute to dehydration,” Pardo said.
Ordering water over a dehydrating drink, including alcoholic beverages and non-decaf coffee and tea, also go a long way in maintaining a strong immune system when flying and preventing valuable mucous membranes from drying up.
10. Go for shiny and new where possible
Standard airliners have cabin-altitude pressure of about 8,000 feet where the humidity levels are low.
Ultramodern aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 XWB feature technology that lowers the cabin altitude pressure of an aircraft to about 6,000 feet, which allows for higher humidity levels.
“The low humidity will dry out your mucous membranes – eyes, nose, mouth – which will make it less effective in blocking the virus,” Pardo said.
These aircraft are mostly found on long-haul routes but should be favoured over older aircraft to help give the body a better chance at fighting off illnesses.
11. Sleep it off
Don’t avoid sleeping on a plane for fear that the immune system isn’t working as hard to fight illnesses.
“Sleep is good for your overall health – I wouldn’t discourage people from sleeping,” Weisenberg said.
The body works just as hard to fight illnesses even when we’re asleep, but precautions should still be taken if deciding to sleep near someone who is coughing or sneezing.
12. Relaxation is just as important as preparation
The stress of travel can increase the chances of getting an illness, according to Weisenberg. While there’s only so much we can do to externally protect ourselves from illness, one of the most important aspects of protection is internally in our own heads. That may be easier said than done, however.