How to Stay Healthy While Traveling

Do you ever feel like you’re more susceptible to getting sick when on a plane? Well, turns out there’s a good reason for that. Science shows that you actually are more likely to get sick on an airplane. According to the World Health Organization, one of the main reasons for that is because of the humidity in an airplane cabin, which is under 20%. At home, the humidity is typically above 30%. The dry air on board will affect your mucus production, which is an integral first-line of defense for your body’s immune system.

​What does this all mean? Simply put, you’re more likely to catch the common cold on a plane than off the plane. And that’s a total bummer! Because who wants to get sick, for example, before your vacation even starts??

Thankfully, there are things you can do to help yourself avoid that fate.

So, what are the dirtiest places on an airplane?

 

Tray tables

The dirtiest thing on an airplane unfolds right onto your lap. Many times, certainly for longer flights, you eat off of it. According to a 2015 study done by TravelMath, it has eight times more bacteria on it than the next dirtiest spot on a plane. The typical tray table has 2,155 colony forming units of bacteria per square inch.

Air vents above each seat

This one originally surprised me simply because, well, I guess I kinda forgot about it. But it’s a briefly, yet frequently, used part of the airplane that probably doesn’t get cleaned or sanitized very often. That same TravelMath investigation found 285 CFU/square inch.  

Seatbelt buckles

Much like the air vents, the seatbelt buckles aren’t touched much, but they’re touched by everyone at least twice a flight. Some people probably sit on them before buckling too. These are covered with 230 FCU/square inch

Bathroom flush button

This one may be the least surprising simply because of its location. I wouldn’t be shocked if everything in the bathroom gets covered in germs every day. However, the flush button probably isn’t the dirtiest part of the plane because because it’s a part of the plane that gets cleaned and sanitized (hopefully) at least once a day. The flush buttons are covered with about 265 CFU/square inch.

Why are these parts of the plane so dirty??

The question for all of these is “why?” Why are all of these (and especially the tray table) so dirty? It’s likely because of the short amount of time between when one set of passengers deplanes and the other boards. According to the Wall Street Journal, when there’s a quick “turn time” (typically on domestic flights), airlines will remove visible trash from places like the seat-back pocket, and that’s basically it. The more in-depth cleanings (mind you, not necessarily disinfecting, which is an important distinction to make) don’t take place until overnight.

The airlines need these planes in the air to make money. That’s why many times you’ll see the cleaning crew board the plane before you are even off (especially if you had a seat in the back) and start cleaning it up.
 

Ways to protect yourself

  • Take an early flight. Think about it: because of the cleaning schedule airlines have, the later in the day it gets, the dirtier the airplane cabin will get.
  • Stay hydrated. The low humidity will dry you out quicker. Drinking plenty of water will help keep your body properly hydrated.
  • Avoid overdoing the alcohol and caffeine. Both of those are diuretics and don’t help with the body hydration.
  • Bring hand sanitizer. Squirt a little bit of that on your hands after adjusting the air vent and buckling yourself, etc.
  • Bring/wear a mask/scarf/something to cover your mouth. You may get some looks but that’s better than getting sick.

Unfortunately, none of these are foolproof. Even if you do take precautions, sometimes luck won’t be on your side. Scientists say your chance of getting sick increases by 80% if you are sitting next to, directly in front of, or directly behind a sick person.

Bottom line

The more you know, the more steps you can take to protect yourself. But here’s a way to put this into perspective: if you typically don’t get sick when flying, you probably have very little to worry about.