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Traveling Healthy: Avoiding that Airplane Cold

Traveling Healthy: Avoiding that Airplane Cold

, by Dr. Jeff Pearl, MD, 2 min reading time


Delays, uncomfortable seats, over-priced mediocre food, unfriendly airport workers and passengers seem to be an inherent part of travel. However, to add insult to injury is to arrive at your destination and have come down with a cold or other virus. Is getting sick when we travel inevitable or are there things we can do to minimize this risk?

First, it is important to debunk the myths and facts regarding airline travel and illness. The often stated assumption is that it is the recycled air that we breathe on the airplane that gets us sick. Well, not only do most common viral illness require more than just breathing the air (contact with droplets and transmission to your own mucous membrane), but the myth regarding airplane air is largely unfounded.

Cabin air in the plane is constantly brought in though the intake system and compressed to pressurize the cabin. The cool outside air which may heat up passing by the engines, is cooled back down and passed through HEPA filters before entering the cabin. Although this air is mixed with existing cabin air, this came from the same fresh source and in fact there is complete exchange of air 20 times per hour in the cabin.

However, in winter where we tend to catch more bugs as people are indoors in enclosed spaces, a similar mechanism is responsible for transmission of germs on airplanes, contact with dirty surfaces. The tray table, arm rests, and seat backs that everyone touches as they walk on the airplane and cramped bathrooms are all unclean surfaces that one touches. The typical mode of transmission after touching those surfaces is that we touch our eyes or nose or mouth (mucous membranes) and thus infect ourselves. Rubbing those dry sleeping eyes after your nap is a prime culprit. The dry air on planes dries our nasal passages and eyes which does not help.

That brings us to the second aspect of getting sick or just not feeling well after airplane travel and that is dehydration. Pressurized, filtered air lacks moisture and dehydration is common if one does not drink adequate fluid prior to during and after a flight. Think of it as how you hydrate for a workout or a sports game and stay hydrated. Avoid alcohol. Beside depressing interleukin levels which are part of immune system, alcoholic drinks also worsen dehydration.

So what can we do to decrease our risk of getting sick and ruining our vacation or business trip?

  1. Wash your hands frequently and carry hand sanitizer with you.
  2. Clean surfaces such as your tray table and arm rests with anti-bacterial wipes when you take you seat. Does it matter if you look like a germaphobe?
  3. Drink lots of water
  4. Avoid alcohol
  5. Limit junk food
  6. Eat fruits and vegetables rich in phytonutrients and antioxidants
  7. Take a multivitamin with plenty of vitamin C and B, Zinc, and Selenium to support immune function
  8. Boost your immune system further with Echinacea, Garlic, and Goldenseal, and Lysine.

Try and stick with your typical diet and exercise routine as much as feasible during your travels.


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