Image: Sick airplane traveler
Sean Locke
If you find yourself next to someone who's coughing and could be contagious, ask for a different seat. The airline might not be willing or able to accommodate, but it's worth a try.
By
updated 12/1/2010 9:02:16 AM ET 2010-12-01T14:02:16

Last year, during the H1N1 hysteria, Corinne McDermott packed up her three kids and an arsenal of antibacterial wipes and headed to Toronto’s airport. On the plane, she set to work swabbing armrests, tray tables and the window shade. Then she used diaper wipes to go over everyone’s hands. “Did we get H1N1? No,” she says. “Did we still get colds? Yes.”

Slideshow: How to flu-proof your flight

McDermott knows a lot about family travel — she runs Have Baby Will Travel, a website about traveling with babies, toddlers and young children. But if you’re traveling by air, especially during the flu-rampant holiday season, it’s very difficult to survive without getting sick. Still, there are steps you can take to help flu-proof your flight.

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It’s no surprise that airplanes are cold and flu incubators — they’re full of shared surfaces, recycled air and ill-mannered people. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Research revealed that travelers may be 100 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane as anywhere else. And according to the American Lung Association, as many as 1 in 5 Thanksgiving travelers carry the influenza virus.

Crafty marketers have capitalized on flu hysteria with myriad herbal remedies and travel accessories. But most doctors say that general pre-trip wellness is your best defense. “Have a healthy immune system before you leave,” says Vanessa Maier, M.D., M.P.H., of Cleveland’s Case Western Medical Center. “That means eating lots of fruits and vegetables, getting at least seven hours of sleep a night and exercising regularly.”

While a healthy body is better equipped to fend off the wheezy guy to your right or the close talker to your left, it’s also important to protect yourself from yourself. “Avoid touching your face, nose or mouth,” says Seattle general practitioner Bruce Kaler, M.D. “The flu and other respiratory illnesses aren’t usually airborne. The majority of transmission is self-inflicted.”

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And yet many frequent fliers rely, not unlike McDermott, on ritual as much as they do common sense. “If my husband takes Emergen-C, he doesn’t get sick,” says Joanna Belbey, a New Jersey–based financial training exec. But during the couple’s last trip to Asia, he ran out and, says Belbey, “went down like a stone.”

Keeping yourself flu-free through the holidays isn’t about luck or superstition. But it doesn’t have to be an exercise in OCD, either. “A few simple steps and planning should help you have a healthy and successful trip,” says Kaler. “Don’t let paranoia about germs distract you from the enjoyable goals of holiday travel.”

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

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