How to Avoid Catching A Cold Next Time You Fly

The dreaded sneeze (Photo credit: M. McFarland, Creative Commons)

Are there ways to avoid catching a cold next time you fly? For starters, watch what you touch, breathe and drink.

Everyone around you is coughing and sneezing and has some kind of bug.

Your holiday plans include air travel. Although I’m generally not a germophobe, sitting in a too-close for-comfort confined space for hours always makes me nervous about catching a cold that could spoil my vacation.

If you’re worried about getting sick on your next flight, there is cause for concern. A 2004 study published in the
 Journal of Environmental Health Research reports that for
every 24 hours of flight time, the risk of cold transmission is increased 23 times (compared to transmission on the ground).

Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that one out of five airline passengers contracts a cold within a week of flying.

Here are several ways to avoid the plague of the post-flight common cold:

1- Watch what you touch

Not too long ago, my college friend, Vikki, and I were seated beside each other on a transatlantic flight. Before we buckled up, Vikki took out a tub of Clorox wipes from her carry-on bag and offered me one.

“What do you do with them,” I asked.

“I wipe down the armrests, the remote device (which is tricky because you need to get into all the little crevices, she explained), the tray, and of course the fastener that holds the tray in place,” she said. “Then I wipe the switches on the overhead light and fan. I buy lemony-smelling wipes so that I don’t offend any of my neighbors,” she added.

Vikki happens to be an education professor so encouraged by my smidgen of interest, she went into work mode lecturing me about her flight plan.

“I have a few rituals when I visit the toilet as well,” she said. “I hold a wipe in my hand as I open the door, wipe down and cover the toilet seat, and use a wipe when I flush and use the water faucet, and use a wipe to open the lock to exit.”

With all that housework on a plane, I realized why she carried a tub instead of a purse pack.

“Do everything you can to avoid using the seat pockets,” she warned. “There is disgusting stuff left in those pockets.” I looked at the seats in front of me in a way I had never viewed them before.

While it may sound extreme, Vikki’s prevention strategy makes some sense. If you touch things that other people with colds have touched, and then touch your own face, nose, or mouth, you increase your risk of catching what they have. One study found a whopping 60 percent of bacteria of airline trays.

If you forget (or don’t want to carry) a tub of wipes, a small bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer carried in your purse or your pocket will do the same job in helping kill germs.

Also, try washing your hands as often as possible or using hand sanitizer while you’re onboard. 

2- Watch what you breathe

Do you get as nervous as I do when the people behind, in front or next to you are sneezing or coughing? Yes, there’s reason to worry.

“Most infections transmitted on planes are airborne, and there is not much you can do once inside the plane other than only exhale for the entire ride,” says Robert Wolfson, MD, an internist with Optum Medical Group in Westchester County, New York.

“Passengers (or flight attendants) with colds, sinus infections, or bronchitis do not generally cancel their flight either because they don’t feel they are sick enough or feel they are obligated to go through with their trip, not to mention the uncertainty of getting a refund. So the air in the cabin is like a Petri dish, and I frequently do treat respiratory infections in recent travelers,” he says.

The options are limited. Avoid sitting in the middle seat scrunched between two people. Upgrade to a more spacious premium economy or business-class seat if you can afford it. Choose the window seat over an aisle.

Limit face-to-face conversation on the plane, especially with toddlers with runny noses.

In case you’re wondering, one of the previously mentioned studies found that recirculated air does not impact the incidence of colds. 

3- Watch what you drink

Staying hydrated (with non-alcoholic drinks) is important both before you board and while you’re flying. Air on a plane is less humid than air on the ground.

If you don’t drink sufficient liquids, mucous membranes in your nose and your mouth can dry out quickly. Without this mucous barrier, germs multiply instead of being washed away.

If you drink on the plane, ask for bottled water instead of the water poured in cups, which is more likely to have bacteria.

A moisturizing lip balm can help prevent germs from falling between the cracks of your lips.

Saltwater nasal sprays can help, too. “Before flying and every few hours in transit, use a nasal moisturizer spray,” suggests Hilary Nangle, a travel writer and guidebook author.

Unless you already have a cold, try to avoid antihistamines, which can dry you out. 

4- Be Prepared

In the days before a trip, travelers often have to juggle unfinished business at home and/or work related to packing and planning for a trip. To get everything done, they skimp on sleep, hoping they’ll catch up when they’re on vacation. Insufficient sleep can lower immunity, making an individual more prone to getting sick.

Some travelers swear by Airborne, an over-the-counter combination of vitamins, minerals, and herbs designed to strengthen the immune system. Others take Vitamin C to prevent colds or lessen their intensity, which is also thought to work by boosting immunity. Anecdotal reports suggest that these approaches work more
 effectively for certain individuals than others. (Check with your doctor before you use these or other products.) 

5- Wear a mask

An ffp2 mask like this one is considered less effective than an N95 or KN95 mask
An ffp2 mask like this one is considered less effective than an N95 or KN95 mask

While there are no airline mask mandates and masks aren’t required, one of the lessons learned during the COVID pandemic was the value of masking up, both on the plane and at airports.

Try to use a KN-95 mask for as long as possible while flying. Studies show that even if no one else on the plane is wearing a mask, one-way masking can help lessen the spread of respiratory viruses.

The Bottom Line

The common cold usually is a nuisance rather than something deadly but it can kill a vacation or business trip.

Whether you are in the air or on the ground, preventive measures are key. “I know of no prophylaxis, including herbs and spices, conventional medications, or alternative treatments that have been shown to be effective as prevention,” says Dr. Wolfson.

Prevention can be attitudinal as well. “I give dirty looks to anyone in close proximity to me who dares to repeatedly cough or sneeze in my direction,” says Vikki.

What do you do to avoid the common cold while traveling?

Also on More Time To Travel: Too Sick to Fly: Why Sick Passengers Don’t Stay Home

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Woman with common cold

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  1. Last year I became very ill a few days after flying and I’m convinced it’s because I bought a sandwich onboard and didn’t wash my hands before eating after touching all those dirty areas around my seat including the tray.

  2. Great tips, Irene! And here’s another use for that bottle of hand sanitizer: if you’re dining at buffets (like on a cruise) use the sanitizer AFTER you’ve visited the buffet line. It’s also a good idea to use the sanitizer AFTER you’ve handled the menu. After all, who cleans menus?

  3. I wonder if disposable plastic gloves might be just as effective, more discreet, and even cheaper and more convenient in some circumstances.

    And, not that I want to discredit precautions, but I wonder if these might give a false sense of security. There are so many _other_ encounters where, for example, you won’t be able to discreetly wash or disinfect your hands after a close encounter with somebody whose personal sanitation is not assured.

    Somehow, it brings to mind the parents who arrive at your home with a toddler, safety gates, changing pads, and socket covers, and proceed to totally transform your space. It’s for everybody’s protection, but still . . . maybe a bit over the top.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Paul. There is no fail-safe way to avoid colds or flu and I guess everyone has to do as much or as little as feels comfortable. While I’m not as fastidious as my friend, Vikki, nor would I wear rubber gloves, I have decided to stop sticking my hands in the seat pocket or touching my mouth and nose when I travel.
      The stats regarding risk on an airplane are pretty compelling~

  4. Some good ideas here. I’m usually pretty careful in bathrooms, but I hadn’t considered the armrests, tray tables, etc. I’ve recently started washing my hands in restaurants after I order, but before the food comes. Helps avoid anything that might be lurking on menus, restaurant entrance doors, chair backs, etc.

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