Being stuck in a cramped plane cabin with hundreds of other people, it’s no wonder we worry about catching a cold or flu while flying.
Some people wipe down the armrests and tray table with antiseptic wipes. Others may take an immune-boosting supplement before their flight.
And what about that overhead vent? Isn’t it spraying germs from the other passengers?
It may seem counterintuitive, but you shouldn’t turn it off.
That’s the advice of Dr. Mark Gendreau. He’s medical director and vice chair of emergency medicine at Lahey Medical Center-Peabody in Massachusetts. Dr. Gendreau has extensively studied how infectious organisms spread through airplanes.
If you leave the air vent on, it can actually help you avoid cold and flu germs, he says.
Until recent years, even infectious disease experts didn’t understand this, Gendreau says.
“Ventilation on airplanes has gotten a bad reputation, but it’s completely unfounded,” Gendreau said.1
It’s a myth that you are sharing unventilated air with all the other passengers.
“The flow pattern of air is actually compartmentalized into various sections on the aircraft,” he said. “The air that you’re typically breathing and exposed to is usually anywhere from two to five rows surrounding your seat.”
Where does the air come from?
Each section has an intake grill on the side of the cabin. The system combines cabin air with fresh air from outside the plane and runs it through a HEPA filter to remove dust and germs. Then it’s sent back out through the overhead vents.
In each section, the air is completely filtered once every two to four minutes. This can remove more than 99% of germs and other contaminants.2
Gendreau says planes have stronger ventilation systems than are needed. They are a vestige of the era when airlines still allowed smoking and powerful filters were needed to remove smoke.
Today, the overhead vent is good weapon against cold and flu germs.
“For airborne viruses, it is incredibly important to ventilate,” Gendreau said.
If you leave on your overhead vent, it creates a turbulent zone exactly where you want it: directly in front of your face. This turbulence helps keep viruses from reaching your mouth, nose, and eyes. It also helps force them down toward the carpeting.
Although airplane ventilation systems are highly efficient at removing germs, it’s important to remember that every time infected passengers cough, sneeze, or speak, they can launch germs as far as six feet. These pathogens can land on any nearby surface.
That’s why you need to worry less about airborne germs and more about picking up pathogens from plane surfaces.3
4 Ways to Avoid Airplane Germs
In addition to leaving your air vent open, here are other ways to avoid catching a cold or flu during air travel:4 5
- Bring sanitizing wipes. As soon as you sit down, use them to disinfect your armrests, tray table, headphones, and other hard surfaces. Also use them on your hands several times during the flight.
- Be extra vigilant in restrooms. Don’t carry in objects such as purses and cellphones, which can easily pick up germs. Use a paper towel as a barrier when you touch faucet and toilet handles. Thoroughly wash your hands before you exit. Use a paper towel to open the door.
- Beware of airline pillows and blankets. They are not laundered between flights and can be teeming with germs. Instead, bring your own travel pillow or blanket. Or use your jacket.
- Stay hydrated. Your immune system doesn’t work well when you’re dehydrated. During flights, drink one to two cups of water per hour. Avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages, which can promote dehydration.
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