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The Gross Truth About Germs and Airplanes

Let’s face it. Planes are gross. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Every single time I board a plane for a long-haul flight, I know I will catch a cold on board. It happens pretty much without fail. And no amount of Vitamin C, echinacea, or hand sanitizer seems to do the trick. In some cases, the runny nose, headache, and sore throat start before I have even disembarked at my destination.


Now I know why.

New research carried out by the experts at Aquaint sanitizer, has uncovered some disturbing truths about air travel that may make you run as fast as you can from your next flight. “Sickness and ill health can put a damper or even ruin well-deserved holidays abroad that have been planned for months or even years,” explained Bola Lafe, founder of Aquaint. “Airplanes, airports, cruise ships, and hotels can all be breeding grounds for bacteria.“


The source of much of the bacteria is our own suitcases.

The study, which looked into how dirty airline travel can be, found that planes are absolutely teeming with bacteria, which can cause a whole host of illnesses. Your luggage can come into contact with up to 80 million bacteria before you even set it down in your hotel room. This is largely to do with the number of people and places it comes into contact with on its journey — an average of two baggage handlers, a member of the airline crew, two cabdrivers, etc. The hands of each person could carry approximately 10 million bacteria at any one time.

You get the picture.

To put this into context further, the average public surface houses around 33,000 bacteria. Anything that gets passed from person to person regularly is swarming with microscopic nastiness.

Related: Airline Employees Go the Extra Mile for Sick Passengers

The Today show carried out a similar study, which discovered bacteria responsible for causing the common cold, influenza, E. coli, listeria, and even the deadly MRSA, have all been located in airports and on planes.

Another thing that gets passed around and is guaranteed to be covered in germs is money. That foreign currency you purchased for your trip? Unless it just left the mint in a plastic bag, it is covered in foreign bacteria. Literally, foreign.

A study by New York University found that paper money can harbor hundreds of different kinds of bacteria. In some cases, up to 3,000 on a single note.
“It was quite amazing to us,” Jane Carlton, the director of genome sequencing at NYU, said in the report. “We actually found that microbes grow on money.”

With over 180 legal currencies in the world, paper money is one of the most frequently passed items, making it a huge source of potential contagion.

Related: What Happens If I Get Sick on a Cruise?

By far the worst, and grossest, discovery made in the Aquaint research concerned the causes for the bacteria found onboard planes.

“Cleaners don’t have time to thoroughly clean the planes between journeys, as they are constantly under pressure to provide a quick turnaround,” explained an anonymous member of a cabin crew who was interviewed as part of the study.

“I have seen passengers change their baby’s nappy [diaper] on the tray table, cut their fingernails onboard, and even urinate in the seats. The carpets are filthy, and the toilet floors are the worst.”

Just thinking about it makes me feel unwell.

They continued: “I would always encourage passengers to sanitize their tray tables and other surfaces before takeoff, use a sanitizing spray on their hands after using the loo [toilet], and never walk barefoot around the cabin.”

So aside from arming yourself with a year’s supply of Lysol, what else can you do to minimize the transfer of bacteria and lower your risk of picking up some unmentionable illness while onboard?

Related: What to Do When You Get Sick on Vacation

Stay hydrated. According to the Mayo Clinic, dehydration causes dry mouth, skin, eyes and mucous membranes.This can make you much more susceptible to infection. Use of a nasal spray will also keep the membranes in your nose and throat properly lubricated, acting as a barrier to bacteria.

Sanitize everything. Wash your hands regularly throughout the flight, and use hand sanitizer. Wipe down your tray table, arm rests, and seatbelt buckle.

Bring your own blanket/pillow. Airplane blankets and pillows are regularly reused several times between washes, so are likely to have come into contact with several people (and their bacteria) before they get to you.

Don’t walk around barefoot. As previously noted by the Aquaint study’s anonymous flight attendant, the carpets and bathroom floors are completely filthy, and therefore swimming with germs. You do not want them on the bottom of your feet.

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