Ah, spring: Birds chirping, plenty of sunshine, and—oh, yeah—tons of people sniffling with colds. Getting sick the second the seasons change is super common, and there are plenty of preventative measures to take to protect yourself. But what’s a girl to do when she’s stuck on an airplane next to a person who has a cough and a nose that’s running like…a marathon?
A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed the movement of passengers on 10 cross-country United States flights and simulated how a virus might spread based on those movements. Grievously, researchers found that you have an 80 percent chance of coming down with an illness if you sit within two seats on either side—or one row in front or in back—of the original virus-laden passenger. Another downer? A sniffling crew member could be handing you some immune-system-busting germs right along with your in-flight snack. Yum! The good news is that it is possible to decrease your chances of becoming ill.
The best doctor-approved way to avoid infection is making it your job during the flight to not touch your eyes, face, or any shared surfaces. “Your arm rests, tray tables, tops of seats, and your own seat have been touched by hundreds of people,” says Ian Tullberg, MD, medical director of Urgent Care for UCHealth. “Whether someone is just walking down the aisle and they grab the top of your seat or whether it be the person on a flight before you who sneezed on the tray table, you’re now coming into contact with those bugs. These bugs can stay on these surfaces for hours or, in some cases, days.”
Also, use plenty of hand sanitizer (bonus points if your bring a homemade natural variety!), and if you’re seated right next to the sick passenger, Travel + Leisure recommends doing your best to remain faced away—as awkward and unfriendly as that might feel. “Different bugs are found in different areas, so when you get in contact with those, your immune system may not have seen them before, thus leaving you more susceptible,” Dr. Tullberg says.
Finally, try and nab a window seat: Passengers were at less of a risk if they stayed put during the flight—and window-seat flyers were found to get up the least—as 40 percent of the virus transmission happened outside of the two-row zone due to the movement of passengers.
As challenging as it can be to share your space with someone who’s clearly not feeling well, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world or the grim reaper to your travel plans. Armed with these tips, you’ll likely be able to enjoy your trip virus-free.
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