Once a great novelty, air travel is now an average part of life for many Americans, especially during the holidays, the busiest travel season in the country.
According to the FAA, there were more than 15 million flights in, out and around the country in 2017, which is more than 40,000 flights a day. Despite air travel being as routine, frequent and safe as it is in our modern society, flying still poses a risk to your health.
Flying does a number on your body, inhibiting your immune system because of stress, dehydration, low cabin humidity and throwing off your circadian rhythm, but the main culprit that will cause you to get sick while travelling is germs.
The risk of getting sick while flying predominantly stems from touching so many high-traffic surfaces and being in close proximity with hundreds if not thousands of other people. Many of these locations aren't sanitized frequently enough, so the germs of many people accumulate there and can survive for hours if not days before hitching a ride on you.
In fact, airports and airplanes are dirtier than even the nastiest places in your house, such as your toilet seat. And after touching one of these surfaces, you might then touch your face, mouth, phone or a complimentary pretzel, transmitting germs into your system.
There are plenty of myths about how you get sick on an airplane, but you can separate fact from fiction and protect yourself from getting sick by knowing where germs are most likely to lurk.
Travel site Travelmath got a microbiologist to swab areas around five airports and four planes to discover where bacteria really congregate, and the top spot might surprise you. They found an average of 2,155 colony-forming units (CFU) per square inch on seat back tray tables, almost 10 times more than on the toilet flush button in the lavatories. Other researchers have found cold viruses, norovirus, human parainfluenza viruses, which can cause respiratory infections, and the superbug MRSA, which causes skin infections, living on airplane tray tables.
According to Drexel Medicine, an unexpected area you should avoid touching on planes are the seatback pockets. While some might use them to store magazines, books and other small items, other people stash their trash, chewed gum, used tissues, filled air sickness bags and even dirty diapers. According to a study from Auburn University, MRSA bacteria can survive in the seat back pocket for up to a week, longer than any other surface on a plane, because of its porous nature and the fact that it's not easily cleaned.
Blankets and Pillows
A free pillow or blanket is usually welcome when you're trying to catch some zzz's, but only accept one if it's still sealed in plastic. Blankets and pillows that aren't sealed are being reused, and blankets, pillows or pillow cases aren't being washed. Even though it takes up extra room, bring your own travel pillow or blanket. They'll probably be better quality than the freebie anyways. Make sure and use a pillow and blanket that can be washed so they don't accumulate germs from your flights.
While the air itself on airplanes is astonishingly clean, the air vents above your seat are not. After walking through the airport, touching everything from door handles to water fountains to their germy tray tables, people often reach for the air vent upon first arriving at their seat. Travelmath found that on average they have 285 colony-forming units per square inch, more than on the lavatory flush button. Use a cloth or tissue when fiddling with the air control, or use hand sanitizer immediately after.
Seat Belt Buckles
Much like air vents, seat belt buckles are touched by every passenger and yet seldom cleaned. The quick turnaround between flights mean trash is picked up and things are straightened out but not cleaned. People often touch seat belt buckles and then their eyes, face, phone or food while settling in to their seat. The average buckle has 230 colony-forming units of bacteria per square inch, according to Travelmath, making it the third germiest surface on the plane.
Overhead Bin Latches
According to USA Today, the latches on overhead bins are heavily handled but rarely cleaned. Airlines have no regulatory body when it comes to sanitation. They are free to set their own standards and quality control measures, which they communicate to contractors. The cabins of aircraft are generally tidied up between flights, but only get vacuumed, wiped down and disinfected at the end of the day or after overnight or international flights. United only truly "deep cleans" its planes (washing carpets, ceilings, cushions, etc.) every 35 to 55 days. American does it every 30 days, and Delta does it every 90 to 100 days.
Auburn researchers found E.coli 0157 bacteria, which can cause severe diarrhea, can live on a rubber armrest for up to four days, longer than on tray tables or in bathrooms. The cleaning that happens in-between flights doesn't involve wiping down arm rests, so this would be a good location to clean with a wipe once you get to your seat. You can also use hand sanitizer before eating or drinking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
Many people prefer the aisle so they can stretch their legs and not disturb others in order to stand up, but this location also comes with its pitfalls. Closer proximity to the aisle also means closer proximity to passengers and airline employees moving through the plane, who often use the back of your chair to steady themselves as they walk, including to and from the lavatories. A study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases concluded that a norovirus outbreak on a plane would more likely infect people seated on the aisle.
Lavatory Flush Buttons
This button, which most people touch after using the bathroom but before washing their hands, has more germs than the toilet itself. According to Travelmath, there are 265 CFU a square inch on the lavatory flush button, while the standard for the toilet seat in your home is just 127 cfu/sq. in., according to the National Science Foundation. This is why you should use paper towels when touching the flush button as well as any other surfaces in the lavatories.
Hundreds of passengers a day pass through a plane, and the average flight has one toilet for every 50 to 75 people. It might seem like a universal hygiene practice, but a survey by the American Society of Microbiology found that 30 percent of people traveling through major airports didn't wash their hands after using public restrooms. Drexel Medicine call the airplane bathroom "one of the germiest places on a plane and a breeding ground for bacteria like E. coli." Restrooms are cleaned regularly but aren't fully disinfected between flights, meaning door locks, faucets, sinks and handles are all natural places for germs from the hundreds of previous occupants to congregate.
But What About the Air?
It's common to come down with a cold or something worse after flying. A popular myth is that the air being recirculated throughout the plane could be the culprit, but the air is actually constantly being cleaned by hospital-grade filters and replaced by clean outside air. On top of that, air in most planes is circulated from top to bottom rather than from front to back so you're not breathing in the germs of everyone else in the cabin. In fact, airplane air is generally cleaner than that of most office buildings. It's really the surrounding surfaces of your seat that you should be concerned with. Those are the reason an airplane is one of the places you're most likely to get sick.