Video: How to stay healthy in flight

  1. Transcript of: How to stay healthy in flight

    MATT LAUER, co-host: This morning on TODAY'S HEALTH , killing germs in flight. Roughly two million Americans fly every day. And many leave the plane with a handful of new germs. What can you do to avoid that? Michelle Higgins is the "Practical Traveler" columnist for The New York Times , and TODAY contributor Dr. Roshini Raj , assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center . Hey, ladies. Good morning to both of you.

    Ms. MICHELLE HIGGINS (Practical Traveler Columnist, New York Times): Hi .

    Dr. ROSHINI RAJ (TODAY Contributor): Hello.

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Hm.

    LAUER: We have brought our personal germ factory with us because Meredith is not...

    VIEIRA: I have a little cold.

    LAUER: ...feeling well.

    Dr. RAJ: Oh.

    LAUER: What are -- what are we talking about here when we travel? I mean, is it the -- are we talking about surfaces or the air that we're breathing?

    Ms. HIGGINS: The main concern is the surfaces because there are so many common shared surfaces on the planes, from the tray tables to the overhead bins that you're sharing to, you know, the bathroom door handle. You've got, you know, usually more than 100 people in this cramped space, and you're sharing all these common touch points, and...

    LAUER: Because a lot of people talk about the air. They say, OK, you know, if the guy in 16B -- or, in this case, the lady in 16B -- has a cold or the flu, she's exhaling and they can only recirculate that air so much and filter it so much. Is that another way to get sick?

    Ms. HIGGINS: Unless it's the passenger sitting directly next to you that's hacking...

    LAUER: Right.

    Ms. HIGGINS: know, that's not as much of a concern. It's more about when you touch something, you know, the tray table or whatever that's been contaminated and then you touch your face or nose or eyes.

    Dr. RAJ: They actually filter the air pretty well. You know, ironically the air in planes sometimes in filtered better than in many office buildings that we work in.

    VIEIRA: Really?

    LAUER: Right.

    Dr. RAJ: So the air is really not a concern, as Michelle said.

    LAUER: So, Doctor, when we're talking about surfaces, are we talking about the typical household, you know, common cold , or are we talking about things that are more serious?

    Dr. RAJ: Well, we're talking about everything. So absolutely, you know, the common cold , the flu virus can survive for several days on hard surfaces like that tray table. But we're also talking about gastrointestinal viruses, you know, things that can cause food poisoning, diarrhea, things like that, or even, you know, MRSA , which is that really dangerous bug that people can get on their skin.

    LAUER: Isn't it true they swab, you know, tray tables and 2/3 of them had that?

    Dr. RAJ: Right. I found a study where Dr. Gerba ...

    LAUER: Yeah.

    Dr. RAJ: ...from University of Arizona swabbed tray tables and the, you know, bathroom door handles and the faucets and all the places that we're touching on a plane, right? And they found all of those things. Norovirus showed up. Mm-hmm.

    LAUER: Now...

    VIEIRA: So they never sanitize these planes when you get off and before people get on again?

    Ms. HIGGINS: Well, the airlines do do a good job of trying to deep cleanse the plane, is what they say. Every 30 days , American for instance, washes all the, you know, seat covers and, you know, scrubs the bathrooms. They also, you know, turn over the planes in between flights and pick up. But, you know, you're on -- depending on how long your flight is, you're cramped in with about 100 passengers.

    LAUER: Yeah, right.

    Ms. HIGGINS: So...

    Dr. RAJ: Yeah, every 30 days is not that often.

    VIEIRA: No. In a bathroom?

    LAUER: No, when you've got people flying.

    VIEIRA: Disgusting.

    LAUER: Now, you know, she makes fun of me. And, ladies, stick up for me here. I get on a plane, I take one of these little Wet Ones sanitary anti-bacterial wipes, and I tend to wipe my armrest. And if they've got one of those, you know, controllers for the lights and things -- that. And sometimes I'll even do the headrest. Is that crazy?

    VIEIRA: Oh my God.

    LAUER: Or is that very smart?

    VIEIRA: My God.

    Ms. HIGGINS: That's a good way to actually protect yourself from germs. Yeah.

    Dr. RAJ:

    LAUER: So very smart?

    Ms. HIGGINS: Well...

    LAUER: Would you go as far...

    VIEIRA: No, no.

    LAUER: very smart?

    Ms. HIGGINS: Really, I...

    VIEIRA: That sounds neurotic.

    Ms. HIGGINS: You know, you might get some side glances from your fellow passenger...

    VIEIRA: Neurotic.

    Ms. HIGGINS: ...but, you know, to cleanse...

    VIEIRA: Neurotic.

    Ms. HIGGINS: ...your environment of germs, that's one of the ways to do it.

    Dr. RAJ: Right. But the best way is to wash your hands frequently because, you know, you can clean off some surfaces. You're probably not going to get every square inch. And what we tend to do is we touch our mouths a lot. We don't realize it but we might do this, we might, you know, rub our nose.

    VIEIRA: Exactly.

    Dr. RAJ: So you really need to make sure your hands are clean more than anything else.

    LAUER: What about some of the products, Michelle , that people are coming out with? You're not necessarily pitching these products or anything like that, but people are being somewhat inventive about this.

    Ms. HIGGINS: Right. So I think because of concerns of, you know, H1N1 and, you know, bedbugs and, you know...

    VIEIRA: Yeah.

    Ms. HIGGINS: ...all these things that people have been picking up while they're traveling, there're new products that have come out. Now, like the Purell , for instance, and the Wet Ones that you can -- those are probably two of the ones that will actually help you. Face masks...

    VIEIRA: Do you wear this?

    LAUER: You need this. Put that on. Put that on.

    VIEIRA: No, you wear this.

    LAUER: Stick that on. No, put it on.

    Ms. HIGGINS: ...generally are more about if the -- yes, the sick person is usually the one to wear that because that's a courtesy to your fellow passenger...

    VIEIRA: He has me wear this every day.

    Ms. HIGGINS: they won't contaminate. But, you know, if you're really worried about a hacking seatmate next to you, that might help.

    LAUER: Right. So bottom line though, if you are nervous about it, take precaution. Nothing better than washing your hands...

    Ms. HIGGINS: Right.

    LAUER: ...but also be incredibly smart, almost brilliant, and wipe down your armrest with...


    LAUER: anti-bacterial wipe.

    Ms. HIGGINS: That's right .

    LAUER: All right, ladies, thank you very much . Appreciate it.

    Ms. HIGGINS: Thank you.

    Dr. RAJ: Thank you.

    VIEIRA: Thank you, ladies, very much.

    LAUER: It's all right. It's all right. We're back in a moment. This is TODAY on NBC .

    VIEIRA: Oh my gosh.

    Ms. HIGGINS: I didn't do the bedbug...

By Travel writer contributor
updated 3/4/2011 10:23:32 AM ET 2011-03-04T15:23:32

Every time she boards an airplane, Sheelagh Doyle of New York City worries that the dry, recirculated air onboard will make her sick.

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“Most times, when I take a flight over a few hours, I get a cold or chest infection,” she said. “I’ve resorted to hiding under a blanket for long-haul flights trying to avoid it.”

Many travelers who fall ill within a day or two of a recent flight blame the quality of the cabin air. But as it turns out, airplane air is no worse than what you'd encounter in your average office building.

It's that coughing or sneezing seatmate that you need to worry about.

“Airplane air isn’t as bad as most people envision,” said Charles Gerba, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona at Tucson. Gerba, also known as Dr. Germ, studies germs and where they congregate and doesn’t worry much about the air quality on airplanes. “On a trip, it’s more likely that the food you eat and the things you touch will make you sick.”

The air up there
Many passengers mistakenly believe that the air in the cabin that they left the gate with is the air they have to breathe for the rest of the trip. “This is not true,” said Boeing spokesperson Bret Jensen.

He blames low humidity for giving airplane air a bad rap. “The overall relative humidity aboard an aluminum airplane is low — around 6 percent — and people become dehydrated on long flights if they don't drink water regularly. This can make people feel different than when they boarded the airplane.”

Modern airplanes do recirculate air, “but don’t let that scare you,” said travel health expert Mark Gendreau, the senior staff physician and vice chair of emergency medicine at Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass.

“Airplanes take about 50 percent of the air collected in the outtake valves of the passenger compartment and mix it with fresh air from outside that gets heated by the engines. That air is then passed through HEPA filters that sterilize it before it’s reintroduced to the passenger cabin.”

Previously, some health experts were concerned that airlines might not service those HEPA filters as often as they should. But Gendreau says both health and economic concerns help insure that airlines do. “If HEPA filters age, they start collecting material. That creates drag and airplanes start burning more fuel. And these days airlines are not interested in wasting fuel.”

Breathe easy
It may help you breathe easier next time you fly knowing that air flow is minimized between seat rows and that airplane air is refreshed more often than the air in office buildings.

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“You are closer to people in the enclosed space of an airplane than you are in an office building,” Gendreau said. “But something called ‘dilution ventilation’ means that even with microorganisms in an air space, if you have good ventilation, there will be less of a chance of transmission.”

The airborne germs on an airplane to be wary of, say both Gendreau and Gerba, are the ones coming from an ill traveler in a row nearby.

“When someone coughs or sneezes, 20 to 30,000 particles fly out about three feet and settle on nearby surfaces. Those microorganisms can live from several minutes up to 24 hours,” said Gendreau. “If you’re more than six feet away from that person, you don’t have much to fear. It won’t propel far enough.”

But if you touch something that a sick passenger's germs have landed on, you’re at risk.

Watch what you touch
Travel health experts say that instead of worrying about the cabin air, travelers should make an effort to avoid touching objects such as airplane toilet seats, soap dispensers, seatbacks, armrests and especially tray tables that can harbor infectious germs. “There are surfaces that everyone touches and you have no idea if a person has sniffles and then walks down the aisle touching the seats and armrests as they go,” said Gendreau.

“We find a lot of flu and cold germs on airplane tray tables,” said environmental biologist Gerba, who takes test swabs during his frequent travels. “And there’s no protocol or government requirement for airlines to clean those between flights.”

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And don’t think that all the germs you encounter when traveling are on an airplane. “Think about all the places you can get exposed to an illness from the time you leave home,” said Gendreau. “You park in a garage, take the escalator and touch the hand rest. You touch the buttons on the ATM. You go through the security checkpoint, you buy coffee, you sit on a seat. Any of these surfaces might be contaminated.”

Get moving
To steer clear of germs on airplanes, Gerba suggests trying to avoid sitting next to someone with a cold and even asking to be moved away from a sneezer if there’s an open seat.

If you can’t change your seat, Gendreau said, try turning the air vent above your seat to medium flow and pointing the air current just slightly in front of your face so that germs from those coughing or sneezing nearby are deflected away from you.

He also urges travelers to stay hydrated. “Our nasal passages, our eyes, and the mucous membranes in lips and mouths have enzymes to fight bacteria,” he said. “If you’re dehydrated, those enzymes won’t work well.” Gendreau suggest drinking at least 8 ounces of water for every two hours.

Mostly, though, keep your hands clean.

“Airlines do minimal cleaning of the airplanes during the day,” said Gendreau. “So when I travel, after I put my stuff in the overhead bin, I’ll take out my hand sanitizer, put some drops on the tray table and clean it with a tissue. I’ll also clean the seat belt and the armrests and goop up my hands. Then I know my seat area is sanitized.”

And then he sits back, relaxes and takes a deep breath.

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to, authors the “Stuck at the Airport” blog and is a columnist for You can follow her on Twitter .


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