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Sky-High Illness: How To Stay Healthy When Your Seatmate Is Sick

December 6, 2013 by

airplane-seatsEveryone was relieved to learn this week that the passenger suspected of having tuberculosis on a US Airways flight tested negative. Still, the incident reminds us that it’s much easier to catch someone else’s cold in close quarters. With a busy holiday travel season and cold weather fast approaching, here are some ways you can protect yourself inflight if you find yourself sitting next to someone who’s sick.

Airplane Air 101
First things first. Cramped for space as passengers might be, an airplane’s air circulation is far superior to, say, your office’s. Fresh air from outside the aircraft is pumped in every few minutes – up to 30 times per hour, in fact, compared to the office average of 12 – through sterilizing filters comparable to those used in hospital operating rooms. Air is also ventilated within three- to seven-row sections, meaning you’re only “sharing” the air with people in that radius. You won’t be doomed just because someone 10 or 15 rows up is coughing up a storm.

Getting Back to Flu Prevention Basics
But what if you’re sitting right next to someone who does appear to be sick? Requesting a seat change would be your safest bet, and flight crews are happy to accommodate, as long as the flight isn’t fully booked.

In times when you can’t move, conventional flu prevention methods still apply. Most important of all is to keep your hands clean. Avoid touching your face and use a hand sanitizer often, especially after you touch surfaces that might be coughed or sneezed on; one way that viruses are transmitted is through “droplets” that are released when someone sneezes or coughs. Tray tables, seatbacks, armrests, and control panels for video and audio systems are often covered in germs. Bring a few individually wrapped alcohol wipes, which are just a few dollars for a 50- to 100-count box (and are also included in airplane emergency medical kits).

Do Masks Help? Yes and No
Masks are commonly recommended, because wearing one yourself is a factor that you can unconditionally control, but judging the effectiveness of a mask can be complicated. While studies show that surgical masks do help to prevent contagion, alongside frequent hand washing or sanitizing, they really are more effective in not spreading your germs if you’re the one who’s sick.

It gets even trickier when you consider the fact that viruses can also be spread via airborne particles. Theoretically, N95 respirator masks should filter 95% of these particles if they’re fitted correctly, but that seems like a pretty big if. That’s not to say that every little bit won’t still help; just know that wearing a mask isn’t foolproof – and perhaps watch this 3M training video on fitting masks properly if you’re truly concerned.

The good news is that it’s totally reasonable to have a flight attendant ask the sick passenger to wear a mask. Recent outbreaks, like SARS in 2003 and H1N1 swine flu in 2009, have made everyone more cautious, and many airlines like JetBlue and Virgin America have confirmed that they carry a small stock on all flights. If the flight crew seems confused, don’t be shy about reminding them to check their medical and service kits. And don’t wait to speak up – if there isn’t a mask onboard, perhaps they can find one near the gate before takeoff.

What Else You Can Do
As in all instances, on or off the airplane, it’s a good idea to turn your face away when someone nearby coughs or sneezes. But being aboard an aircraft does arm you with a nice small tool: individual air vents. To help deflect airborne germs, try to direct the stream between you and your ill neighbor (and bring extra layers if you tend to get cold). Because air humidity is extremely low on flights, it’s also important to drink lots of water so that the bacteria-fighting enzymes in the mucous of your nose, mouth, and even eyes stay hydrated and do their jobs.

As far as pulling sick passengers off planes, flight crews do and have exercised the right to do so in very severe cases. That said, airlines are hesitant to enforce hard and fast rules. Where do they draw the line, after all, between a mild cold and something much more serious or contagious? Of course, you’re certainly within your rights to bring up your concerns if something seems serious, but don’t necessarily expect results on this front. And, just to end on a fair note, sometimes it is very difficult to tell virus symptoms apart from a harmless condition, like allergies. So, once you follow the aforementioned trips, try to relax and focus on whatever wonderful destination it is that you’re jetting off to explore.

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