An article I came across in the Huffington Post a while back brought to the forefront something which had been bothering me for a while: the health risks of flying. According to the post, passengers on a flight from Beijing to Vancouver may have been exposed to a case of the measles, when it was revealed that someone on the flight was carrying the highly infectious virus.
While the implications of coming down with something nasty like the measles is bad enough (inflammation of the brain, convulsions, deafness and even brain damage in worst case scenarios), the virus scare on that flight merely highlights the vast array of health risks involved with air travel. As someone who is flying long-distance on a regular basis, this is a big deal for me, and I seized the opportunity to look into what could be done to safeguard myself from a whole lot of potentially sick people bottled up inside a tiny tin can with wings for multiple hours.
Based on my research, here’s a few handy tips for protecting yourself while in transit and stepping off a plane no worse for wear than when you first got on.
1. Avoid contaminated surfaces
Before I did the research, I was under the impression that one of the most common ways people got sick from being in planes was via the recycled air that blasts out into your face throughout the flight. According to Dr. Mark Gendreau, a specialist in aviation medicine at Lahey Medical Centre in Massachusetts (who knew “avian medicine” was even a thing?!), this is far from the case. Yes, someone who sneezes can project infectious pathogens into the air which can then get sucked up by the air recycling system, but Gendreau points out that most planes have high-tech air filters that remove over 99 percent of airborne microbes. Those are some pretty slim odds of catching a cold from your air vent.
Now that I’ve alleviated your fears of airborne sickness, it’s time to turn your attention to physically touching contaminated surfaces. These present your greatest likelihood of getting ill – someone who has a cold or flu (and lets not forget about those measles!) touches the handle to the toilet, you then touch that handle as you exit the toilet later on, then transfer the virus into your body by rubbing your eyes, licking your hands or just eating that nasty airplane food.
While washing your hands will help to minimize this risk somewhat, you’re still at risk of touching contaminated surfaces – the classic case being when you have to exit the toilet, touching the little latch to release the door catch or pushing the door open with your hand. Plus, apparently tap water on aircrafts has its own contamination issues to work through. For this reason, probably the safest way to lower your risk is to carry a toxin-free, natural hand sanitizer and use it after touching any suspect surfaces or prior to eating.
Your other best option is to straight-out avoid touching contaminated surfaces – you can do this by wearing gloves, only using restrooms whose entryways don’t have doors (so you don’t have to touch a door to exit the restroom after washing your hands – works in airports, not so much in planes!), or use your elbow or back of the hand to operate handles and locks (takes some skill, but it can be done!).
2. Support your immune system before & after flying
You might be super careful with touching surfaces and still be at risk of infection if someone nearby sneezes and you’re unfortunate enough to be sitting within the “blast radius”. This means you are now at a higher risk of inhaling the infectious pathogen, but it’s also the point where your immune system steps in. How healthy you are before (and immediately after) the flight will determine whether your immune function is strong enough to fight the infection, or whether it will easily take over. Here’s a few simple things you can do to ensure your immune system is in tip top condition:
- Minimize stress before your flight. If you find yourself getting anxious or frustrated with preparations for your trip, take some time to just chill and work on consciously eradicating that stress. Things like meditation, walking in natural settings (i.e. parks), watching your favorite comedy tv show, or doing some light stretches can help.
- Get plenty of sleep in the nights leading up to your flight. No all-nighters packing your stuff for the trip! I’ve definitely been guilty of this on many occasions, and it’s never ended well.
- Exercise regularly, and be sure to move about constantly. This means changing your position (be it sitting, standing, or lying down) as much as possible…with the exception of when you sleep, of course!
- Get plenty of sun to keep your vitamin D levels high. Vitamin D is critical to a properly functioning immune system, plus sunlight during the day will help you sleep better at night.
- Eat lots of healthy, whole foods. Plenty of veggies, a smattering of fresh fruit, lots of high quality meat, and avoid grains and sugars where possible.
- Eat plenty of fermented foods (such as this delicious home-made sauerkraut!), or get your hands on a good probiotic supplement.
3. Bring your own food on the plane
I always find myself getting strangely excited by the prospect of getting served food on a plane, there’s just something infinitely satisfying about eating a meal at 40,000 feet. But virtually every time, I’m disappointed. Airplane food is almost universally atrocious – it’s sloppy, composed of ingredients you don’t even want think about, and generally lacking in nutrition. Even more importantly, there’s always the risk that you could get sick from it, as it is handled by who knows how many people before it gets to your “tray table”, and is reheated at least twice, amplifying the risk of contamination.
The best strategy is always to source your own healthy food before the flight and bring it on-board. Just make sure to bring enough so that you’re not still tempted by the airline food, bring utensils (just in case the snooty air hostess doesn’t want to give you theirs), and, for the sake of the other passengers and your own dignity, stay away from overly pungent food…it’ll stink the cabin out quicker than you can say “pee-yew!”.
4. Drink plenty of water
Water is essential to the healthy function of your body, including your immune system. The recycled air on planes really dries you out, and many people get tempted by the various sugary or alcoholic drinks on offer and therefore become even more dehydrated. If you’re going to give your body a fighting chance against infection, skip the soda or wine and opt for water instead. I always make sure I fill up my glass water bottle before getting on the plane, and when they come around offering cups of water I ask them to fill my drink bottle instead. Smart for my health, and smart for the environment!