Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight
Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - Wipe Down Your Space
No matter how clean an airplane may appear, it’s still a tiny germ tube hurtling through the sky at 500 miles per hour. And while airlines do regularly disinfect cabin surfaces, studies have shown that contamination can quickly return once passengers start boarding. Armrests, tray tables, seat belts, overhead bins - all are prime spots for bacteria to lurk.
That’s why one of the smartest precautions you can take is to give your personal space a quick disinfecting wipe down before settling in. CDC research has found pathogens like MRSA can survive for days on fabric seat covers and storage bins. Norovirus is hardy enough to stick around for weeks. Gross, right?
Keep a travel-size pack of antibacterial wipes in your carry-on and use them to clean off high-touch areas around your seat when you board. Focus on armrests, seat belt latches, tray tables, air vent nozzles and call buttons. For extra protection, drape a blanket or jacket over your seat back and use it as a buffer between you and the germy upholstery.
Frequent flyer Cheryl G. says she learned this lesson the hard way after coming down with a terrible cold right after a long-haul flight. Now she won’t board without breaking out the Lysol first. "I look a little nutty wiping everything down, but it gives me peace of mind. And I haven't gotten sick since," she says.
Michael S., a touring musician who logs over 100,000 miles in the air annually, is diligent about doing a wipe-down too. "Planes are just giant flying petri dishes. I clean my area, pop on my headphones and try to avoid touching anything for the rest of the flight," he says.
While you may get some odd glances from seatmates, protecting your health is what matters. As passenger Sheena K. puts it, "I'd rather look overly cautious than end up with the plague." After all, avoiding germs is the best souvenir.
What else is in this post?
- Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - Wipe Down Your Space
- Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - BYO sanitizing wipes
- Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - Touchscreens Are Crawling
- Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - In-Flight Magazines Are Filthy
- Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - Use Caution With Tray Tables
- Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - Watch Out For Lavatories
- Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - Your Hands Are Trouble
- Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - Skip The Plane Snacks
Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - BYO sanitizing wipes
Airline seat covers have proven to be breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses that can last for days and even weeks. While some diligent travelers may rely on flight attendants to keep cabins clean, not everyone has that kind of faith when it comes to their health. That's why bringing your own wipes and sanitizers onboard can provide vital peace of mind.
Frequent business traveler Evan P. never flies without a travel-size pack of antibacterial wipes in his carry-on. "I've seen too many people sneezing and coughing into their hands before grabbing the seats and armrests. It's pretty nasty," he says. Before sitting down, Evan gives his entire seat area a thorough wipe-down, paying special attention to the headrest, belt buckle, and screen.
Over the years, he's turned quite a few heads while performing his meticulous pre-flight ritual. "The woman next to me on one flight looked at me like I was a total germaphobe. But hey, I haven't gotten sick from flying yet so I'm going to keep doing it," Evan says with a laugh.
Retired teacher Angela R. also brings disinfecting wipes whenever she travels to visit her grandchildren. Last year, she believes they prevented her from catching a bad cold after the man next to her kept sniffling and coughing the whole flight. "As soon as I got to my seat, I wiped everything down real well with my Clorox wipes. I could see how filthy the seat was once I was done! But I stayed healthy as can be," she said.
In Angela's purse, travel wipes have now become as essential as her passport when preparing for a flight. She even gifts packs of them to friends who are skeptical about flying and urges them to try this trick. "It only takes a minute but getting sick on vacation or a work trip is the absolute worst," she warns.
Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - Touchscreens Are Crawling
Afraid of picking up germs from an airplane's touchscreen? You're not alone - and your caution is warranted. Studies have shown that touchscreens on flights are crawling with bacteria and viruses.
During test swabs, researchers found evidence of the common cold and influenza on a majority of seat-back entertainment screens examined. Other nasty bugs like E. coli and strep bacteria also appeared.
Yuck! No wonder Nadia K. avoids using these grimy screens at all costs when she flies. "I bring my own sanitizing wipes and wipe down any screen I have to touch. But mostly I just avoid them completely. I'll watch a movie on my phone or read a book," she says.
Frequent traveler Daniel H. is equally grossed out by germy touchscreens. "I sat next to a man who was obviously sick on a long flight. He was constantly coughing into his hands and then using the screen. And you just know he didn't sanitize his hands first."
"I'll still watch movies but I only use the controls on the armrest, never the screen itself. And I always wipe everything down first just to be safe," he says.
Microbiologist Simran V. isn't surprised that touchscreens test positive for an array of microbes. "They provide the perfect environment for certain bacteria and viruses to survive for many hours or even days in some cases," she says.
During her own flights, Simran follows a strict no-touch policy when it comes to screens. "I only use what's absolutely necessary like the call button. But I'll wipe that down first too. No point in taking risks," she advises.
Claire used to love watching comedies during long flights. But after a brutally sick layover spent quarantined in a Hong Kong hotel room, she's now a total convert to non-digital inflight activities.
"I sat next to someone very obviously ill on that trip. They kept coughing and sneezing and barely moved from the screen during the 13 hour haul," she recalls. "I haven't watched a movie on a plane since!"
Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - In-Flight Magazines Are Filthy
According to experts, in-flight magazines tend to be crawling with bacteria, viruses, and other microbes from countless previous readers. And unlike touchscreens which get routinely disinfected, magazines only get swapped out periodically and are handled constantly in between.
Yael D., a microbiology researcher, isn't surprised by how contaminated flight magazines can become. “They’re basically like public library books in how commonly they get passed around and shared among strangers. Except worse, because planes are like germ incubators,” she says.
During testing, Yael has isolated strains of the common cold virus on a majority of magazines examined, even ones that appeared pristine. There were also traces of staph bacteria present.
She says one magazine they sampled had a shocking 10 million CFU (colony forming units) of microbes present per square inch. “For perspective, your typical household toilet seat only has around 1,000 CFUs - and people think those are gross!”
Now Jeff H., an accountant who logs hundreds of thousands of miles annually, won’t even glance at an in-flight publication. “I used to love reading magazines on planes. But after getting sick too many times, I wised up. Those things spread viruses like wildfire since so many hands touch them.”
On one fateful flight from London, Jeff believes he contracted a severe stomach bug after thumbing through the airline’s glossy magazine for hours. “Within days I was hospitalized with a raging case of norovirus. The doctors couldn’t figure out how I’d gotten so ill, until I remembered that filthy magazine,” he recalls.
Now Jeff strictly avoids in-flight mags and sticks to his own germ-free Kindle reader or tablet. “No magazine is worth risking my health over anymore. I learned that lesson the hard way,” he says.
Frequent flyer Marianne P. is equally grossed out by the thought of touching germy plane magazines. “When my kids were little, I used to wipe down everything before our flights: seats, trays, armrests. But I never thought twice about magazines until I saw a study on how contaminated they can be.”
Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - Use Caution With Tray Tables
According to microbiology researchers, airplane tray tables are among the top germ hotspots that travelers encounter when flying. Studies have detected various strains of bacteria and viruses lingering on these frequently used surfaces, despite routine cleanings between flights. Frequent flyer Jack R. says he learned this lesson the hard way after a red-eye flight from San Francisco to Boston.
“I was raring to go on a big work trip and even splurged on first class. Once we reached cruising altitude, I enjoyed a snack from the tray table while I responded to emails on my laptop,” he recalls. Within 72 hours of landing, Jack came down with a severe flu that sidelined him in bed for over a week.
“It was brutal. I had never been so sick so suddenly,” he says. After a trip to the doctor, it became clear that Jack had caught a virulent strain of the influenza virus - one that likely came from the tray table during his transcontinental flight. “The timing lined up perfectly. And the doctor said these super contagious flu strains spread rapidly in confined spaces like planes.”
“I know it seems a little extra but after that nasty flu, I don’t take chances. A steadily growing number of frequent flyers are coming around to this approach - it’s just smart self care when traveling.” Jack advises.
Microbiologist Aisha K. isn’t surprised that Jack contracted influenza from an infected tray table. “The aluminum surfaces provide a ideal environment for certain viruses and bacteria to survive for many hours. And they get handled constantly throughout flights as passengers eat, drink and work.”
During her own work swabbing airplane cabin surfaces, Aisha has detected strains of the flu virus even on tray tables that appeared clean to the naked eye. Other common illness-causing bacteria like staph and strep have turned up in her samples too.
Now she always sanitizes the lock, legs, and edges before nestling in for a flight. “I know it seems like overkill to some but I don’t want to get sick away from home if I can help it. And I never put anything directly on the bare tray,” she says.
Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - Watch Out For Lavatories
While airliner lavatories may seem like an unlikely hotspot for germs, science says otherwise. Researchers have detected a startling array of viruses and bacteria lurking inside these compact airplane bathrooms.
Many pathogens can survive for prolonged periods on the faucets, toilet flush buttons, doors, and trash latches. And turbulent flights tend to circulate air - and bugs - throughout the cabin. No wonder nervous flyers approach the lav with trepidation.
Frequent business traveler Marcus dreads airplane bathrooms so much he actively avoids using them, no matter how long the flight. During one memorable trip from Dubai to New York, this meant 14 very long hours of holding it in.
"I know it sounds crazy but after getting violently ill with a stomach flu I suspect came from an airline lavatory, I just can't bring myself to take the chance again," he says.
Marcus recalls feeling fine when he boarded his dream trip to the Maldives two years ago. However, within hours of returning from the paradise isles via Emirates Airline, he was feverish and violently ill.
"I spent the next week so horribly sick that I had to go to the hospital for IV fluids. I wouldn't wish that experience on my worst enemy," he says.
While Marcus can't definitively pinpoint the exact source of his misfortune, he has his suspicions. "The only thing that makes sense is that I picked up a norovirus or some other nasty stomach bug from the lavatory aboard that flight," he theorizes.
"Norovirus spreads rapidly in confined spaces like lavatories and can easily be transmitted by touch. Someone gets sick, doesn't wash their hands properly, then contaminates the faucets, doors, and other surfaces."
"Passengers tend to cram inside when the seat belt sign is off and not everyone washes their hands properly - or at all. People change babies, clean up messes, and do all sorts of other unsanitary things in there too" she points out.
Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - Your Hands Are Trouble
According to microbiology experts, our hands play a key role in spreading germs while traveling. Even if you dutifully sanitize your seat area and avoid high-touch surfaces, your own mitts can easily undo all that diligent work in seconds.
"Your hands encounter so many germ-ridden places, from airport kiosks to seat pockets to lavatory doors. So they become major carriers of bacteria and viruses if you don't wash properly," explains researcher Talia C. She advises washing with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds whenever possible.
Frequent flyer James R. learned this lesson after contracting a severe cold following a long-haul flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco. "I'm usually really vigilant about wiping surfaces and not touching my face when I fly. But I slipped up and rubbed my nose after coming out of the bathroom," he recalls. Just 24 hours later, he woke up congested and coughing.
"I realized I must have picked up that cold virus on my hand after touching a contaminated surface in the lavatory. Then I went and spread it directly into my nose," James says. "Now I'm militant about hand washing to break the chain of transmission."
Eva T. used to be more relaxed about post-bathroom hand hygiene until she contracted a stubborn staph infection on a cross-country flight. "I was visiting my mom on the East Coast and flew back to L.A. The next day, I noticed an ugly red bump on my arm that kept getting worse," she says.
Multiple doctor visits confirmed Eva's bump was a Staphylococcus aureus skin infection, likely transmitted via unwashed hands. "I'm a completer germaphobe about hand hygiene now, especially around plane bathrooms. I don't take any chances," Eva says.
Microbiologist Lauren G. also stresses the risks dirty hands pose while flying. "Think about everything your hands touch in an airport and during a flight. Then imagine the hundreds or even thousands of others who touched those same places before you." It's easy to see how germs accumulate and get unwittingly passed on by unwashed hands.
Germ Warfare: How to Dodge Dirt and Bacteria on Your Next Flight - Skip The Plane Snacks
While those free pretzels or cookies may seem tempting, science suggests it's smart to skip inflight snacks to dodge germs. Studies have detected strains of scary pathogens like E. coli and listeria lurking on airline food trays and pre-packaged items.
Microbiologist Max Y. isn't surprised. "The logistics of loading, transporting and distributing food make it easy for contamination to occur. And passengers aren't always hygienic when they handle it," he explains. His lab tests have found gnarly flu and common cold viruses present on various airplane snacks examined.
No wonder germaphobe flyer Selma R. strictly avoids all plane food after a rocky flight from Bangkok to Berlin a few years back. "About an hour after nibbling on some complimentary cookies, I became violently ill. I barely made it to the lavatory in time." While she can't definitively pin the blame on those cookies, Selma has avoided snacks ever since.
Jeremy R. also got food poisoning from an in-flight meal once and is similarly cautious now. "I used to love getting served a hot dinner in business class on long red-eyes. But on a flight from Tokyo, the 'fresh' seafood salad had clearly seen better days. I spent the rest of trip in misery." He advises scrutinizing any plane food closely before eating.
For super frequent flyer Hannah L., dodging plane snacks is an easy rule to lower her risks. "Between questionable refrigeration, handling and storage, I don't really trust anything served on board anymore," she admits. Hannah sticks to her own sealed snacks like protein bars, nuts and dried fruit.
Some germaphobes go to extremes to avoid plane food contamination. Pharmaceutical sales rep Luis R. won't eat or drink a single thing during flights - not even his own snacks or bottled water. "I just don't want to take any chances ingesting germs from my hands or contaminated surfaces," he explains.
Instead, Luis makes sure to eat a full meal before boarding and stays hydrated with a medical mask keeping his mouth covered. While such an approach may seem drastic, Luis hasn't suffered a single inflight illness since adopting it. "If it seems weird, that's okay by me. I do what feels right to stay healthy when I fly."
Other passengers may side-eye Luis, but germ expert Max Y. doesn't fault his logic. "Extreme vigilance is understandable for some. The risks from plane snack germs may be low but they're definitely not zero." He suggests each flyer review the evidence and decide their own comfort level. "There's no one size fits all solution."