Health and wellness

How to avoid getting sick from flying – keep clean, stay hydrated and try to get a window seat

Many of us have fallen ill a few days after a flight, but doctors and frequent flyers say this can be avoided by following a few simple steps. Follow these tips to increase your chances of a happy and healthy landing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 December, 2017, 8:46am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 May, 2018, 12:08pm

It’s the holiday season, and, for many of us, that means sitting for hours on end in cramped airline seats, inhaling stale cabin air, spending time in unsanitary aircraft lavatories, and waiting around in airports surrounded by hundreds of other passengers.

The last thing anybody wants to happen while they’re on holiday is to fall sick, but unfortunately, that is something that can – and does – happen. Hands up if you’ve ever arrived at your holiday destination feeling terrible (and no, it was not the jet lag) only to develop flu-like symptoms a few days later. Blame it on all that time spent on board.

“We pick up bacteria and viruses from various surfaces that other people have touched,” says Dr Lily Wong, a family doctor at The London Medical Clinic in Hong Kong’s Central district. “These organisms find a way into our bodies when we touch our eyes, nose or mouth. When you’re stuck on a plane you’re also breathing in airborne respiratory pathogens, although the risk of falling sick from these pathogens is low, since the air in the cabin is constantly being filtered.”

If you don’t want to fall sick and miss out on your holiday, there are several precautions you can take, Wong says.

She suggests getting the annual flu vaccine, especially if you’re going to be flying a lot. Not only will this protect you from the flu virus during and after your trip, it will also help reduce the spread of infection to other passengers. The vaccine takes seven to 10 days to become effective.

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Wong’s next tip is easy enough to remember: “Wash your hands frequently when you’re on the plane – before and after you eat and after visiting the lavatory. Also, avoid touching your face, and, if you wear contact lenses, remove them before boarding so you don’t have to touch your eyes.”

It is impractical to always be getting out of your seat to wash your hands, so you may want to keep alcohol wipes or an alcohol-based hand sanitiser gel in your bag for those times when going to the loo is impossible, she says. “Make sure the hand sanitiser contains at least 60 per cent alcohol.”

The antibacterial wipes and gel will also come in handy for cleaning the area around you once you board.

“The most contaminated areas on a plane are the tray table, the overhead air vents, the arms of the seat, the control panel for the in-flight entertainment, and the seat belt buckle,” says Wong. The toilet door handles and toilet seats also harbour bacteria and viruses.

Use tissue paper to put the toilet seat up and down and to turn the toilet door handles, she suggests. She also advises against storing your personal items in the seat pocket, because previous passengers may have placed their germ-infested tissue paper in it. If you’re using the airline blanket and pillow, make sure they’ve been packaged and sealed properly.

Gloria Slethaug flies more than 25 times a year and never gets ill. The managing director of Connexus Travel in Kowloon says that, over the years, she’s developed strategies for staying healthy while travelling.

“I always choose the window seat if it’s available,” she says. “I avoid aisle seats because they put you in closer proximity to people walking up and down the aisle. I also don’t sit near the lavatory, and a neck pillow keeps my head from touching the headrest.”

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Of course, it’s also important to adopt healthy lifestyle habits before you travel, to bolster your immune system. This means loading up on antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables, drinking plenty of water, getting sufficient sleep and exercise, and managing your stress levels (stress can lower your immunity).

As dehydration can weaken the immune system, Wong says to sip on water continuously throughout your flight and to avoid dehydrating beverages like coffee and alcohol. During an eight-hour flight, you should consume at least one litre of water.

Because the low humidity in the cabin can dry out your nose, preventing the tiny hairs and thin layer of mucus from trapping bacteria and viruses, you’ll want to keep your nasal passages moist with a nasal saline spray, she adds.

Celebrity wedding photographer Ashton Wong, who flies regularly around Asia and to Europe, swears by vitamin C and zinc supplements to keep his immune system strong. While on board, the 35-year-old also wears a cotton mask. The mask, he says, creates a physical barrier against germs, and is useful if he is sitting next to someone who’s sick. It also prevents his throat from drying out.

The most contaminated areas on a plane are the tray table, the overhead air vents, the arms of the seat, the control panel for the in-flight entertainment, and the seat belt buckle
Dr Lily Wong

“Cabin air is dry, so the mask keeps the air around my nose and mouth moist,” says Ashton Wong, a Singaporean who’s based in Hong Kong. “This prevents bacteria and viruses from thriving and taking hold in my respiratory system.”

If you notice that a passenger near you is ill, and the flight is not full (ho! ho! ho!) ask to change seats, especially if he or she is not wearing a mask.

“Respiratory droplets can spread two to four rows from the front, back, or side of you, so you should sit as far away from the infected passenger as possible,” says Dr Wong. “Wearing a mask will help a little, but you must use it properly for it to be effective.”