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Flying? How to avoid airplane germs

Flying over the holidays? If so, you might be wondering how you can get home without getting sick when you're surrounded by hacking and coughing passengers.

"There's a lot of germs you can get, if you don't take proper precautions," Dr. Keri Peterson, Women's Health contributor, told Carl Quintanilla on TODAY.

Research has shown how easily disease can spread. Tracing influenza transmission on long flights in 2009 with passengers infected with the H1N1 flu strain, Australian researchers found that when 2 percent of passengers had the disease during the flight, 5 percent of additional passengers came down with same strain of flu within a week after landing.

"If you're sitting within two rows of someone who has flu symptoms, you increase your likelihood of getting sick by 3.6 percent," Peterson said. "If you're within two seats of someone beside you, it doubles to 7.7 percent."

Before you even get on the plane, security checkpoints harbor a host of hazards. People get bunched up in lines, she said, where there is plenty of coughing and sneezing. Travelers remove their shoes and place them in plastic security bins — and with them the germs that they pick up on the ground. "You might as well just take the bottom of your shoe and wipe it on your clothing," Peterson said. 

The environment on a plane is also a factor. "At 30,000 feet, the air is very dry," Peterson said. "And viruses thrive in that environment." That air also dries out the lining of the nose and is more likely to make you dehydrated, which can make passengers more susceptible to catching a cold.

Some may wonder if re-circulated cabin air is to blame, but studies have shown that HEPA filters on most jets today can capture 99 percent of viruses and bacteria. "The issue is when the plane is idle, when passengers are coming in and exiting the plane, or if it is delayed on the tarmac — there is a very high incidence of germs spreading like wildfire," she said.

One way to protect yourself against germs is to get a flu shot. Peterson also recommends that travelers bring along a travel health kit with tissues, pain relievers, and an antibacterial hand cleaner to use in case soap and water aren't available.

Also, be sure to eat healthy and exercise, she said, both of which keep your immune system functioning at its best.

While on the plane, Peterson said, be sure to drink lots of water and use saline spray to keep nasal passages moist. Disinfecting wipes can be used to clean off tray tables, arm rests and television buttons. She also recommends that travelers avoid shared items such as pillows, blankets and magazines.

And that air vent?

"Don't blow it on your face," Peterson said. "Direct the air just in front of you. It directs the germs away from you instead of on you."

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