The Current

Germs on a plane: How to stay healthy while travelling

Microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba studies just how dirty planes can get and says hand sanitizer is the best option to ward off germs during travel.
From cold viruses to superbugs, particular germs are persistent stowaways on airplanes, says microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba. (pixabay.com)
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For those who celebrate, the holiday season often conjures a bucketful of emotions: joy, celebration, whimsy, stress and for some, even dread.

Add air travel to the mix: the coughing and sneezing passengers on a plane, a breeding ground for germs circulating in a metal tube thousands of feet in the air.

Microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba studies just how dirty planes can get and says hand sanitizer is the best option to ward off germs during travel.

Microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba says after studying how dirty airplanes and other environments get over the years, he's slowly become a germaphobe. (pixabay.com)

"You can pick up germs very readily in a public place. You know, we travel more than ever before. We touch more surfaces than any generation ...  so we're actually exposed to more people's germs than any time in history because of that," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

 'The germiest toilet you'll ever enter'

Gerba admits his research has slowly turned him into a germaphobe over the years. He says the three dirtiest places on an airplane, starting with the cleanest first, are the overhead compartment where luggage is stored, the seat tray (not often disinfected between flights with quick turnaround times) and lastly, the toilet.

"The toilet really is the worst case  ... you got about one toilet per 50 people, and on a long flight, almost everybody ends up using it all the time. So that tends to be the germiest toilet you'll ever enter," Gerba says, adding that it doesn't help that it's difficult to wash your hands with a small sink and the water cutting off.

Wipe down those tray tables

Gerba says he's tested a number of seat tray tables on flights and has found the influenza virus, cold viruses, and viruses that cause diarrhea.

"Even on several flights, we found Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus which causes skin infections in people," Gerba explains.

Gerba says airplane table trays are a breeding ground for viruses to be spread because they are often not disinfected between flights. (Kham/Reuters)

Breathe out, breathe out

Beyond surfaces you touch, there's also the air that you breathe that exposes germs, says Gerba. 

"The obvious concern is with the transmission of tuberculosis which has been shown to occur among passengers in planes, and possibly influenza," Gerba tells Tremonti.

"The risk is really the people right around you. Air in an airplane goes around, not back and forth.  So really the air you are being exposed to is from the people on either side of you, or in front of you, or in back of you."

Gerba says air on planes does go through a filter which largely takes out microorganisms. But for coughing and sneezing passengers in your vicinity, he suggests you look the other way as much as you can.

Is this 'reduced-risk' seat taken?

Gerba suggests the best seats on planes are the ones in the exit row or bulkhead.

"Nobody's in front of you and so you kind of reduce your risk of exposure, at least from that group of people so that might be a preferred place."

"Before a flight, I always try to get my immunity up." 1:08

And what about a window seat vs. an aisle seat? Is there a better option? Turns out there is a rule of thumb for this, according to Gerba.

"Aisle tends to be a little bit more dangerous, you know, in several outbreaks of diarrhea that occurs from viruses on planes and long flights, particularly transpacific or transatlantic," Gerba says.

He points to research suggesting people who got diarrhea on the plane were running to the restroom often and tended to touch surfaces on the way, increasing the chances of getting diarrhea for those sitting in an aisle seat.

"So if you're constipated, I recommend the aisle seat," Gerba advises.


This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese, John Chipman and Samira Mohyeddin.