The People's Perspective on Medicine

Travelers Beware: Scary Germs Survive a Long Time in Aircraft Cabins

Your travel kit should contain soap or hand sanitizer to protect you from scary germs on planes, trains or automobiles.

If you are traveling for summer vacation, it makes sense to pack soap or hand sanitizer where you can get to it easily. Car travelers may find that rest stops are not as well-equipped for hand-washing as one would like. Also, the handles and key pads on gas pumps can collect a lot of scary germs.

Germs in Planes:

Airplanes may harbor dangerous bacteria in unexpected places for a surprisingly long time. Travelers have long suspected that the recycled air makes it easier to catch colds or influenza. The confined space also makes it impossible to move away from someone who may be coughing or sneezing. As a result, air travel is perceived as an important way that diseases can be spread from country to country or continent to continent (Microbiology Spectrum, Oct., 2015). One study showed, however, that movement of passengers and crew within the cabin can have a significant effect on the circulation of microbes in the air (BMC Infectious Diseases, Aug. 6, 2014).

Experience with Ebola virus during the 2014 epidemic showed, however, that not all scary germs are readily transmitted during flight (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Jan. 30, 2015). The investigation covered three infected passengers who were on commercial flights. Despite careful follow-up of 247 possible contacts through those flights, no secondary infections were uncovered.

Persistence of Scary Germs:

Scientists at Auburn University in Alabama have just come up with another reason to worry. They studied components of an aircraft cabin and found that MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) could survive more than 150 hours on the back pocket of an airplane chair. E. coli, which can cause intestinal infections, was viable for 96 hours on armrest material. These findings suggest that frequent hand-washing or disinfection with hand sanitizers would be prudent for air travelers who don’t want to pick up unplanned and unwelcome souvenirs.

American Society of Microbiology annual meeting, May 21, 2014

Other Considerations for Travel:

We’ve written here about a first aid kit for when you are away from home. It is a good idea to have it ready to go, and make sure that any prescription drugs you take regularly make it out of the medicine chest and into your travel bag before you leave the house!

Another problem that can cause air travelers consternation is ear pain, especially upon descending. There are a number of suggestions for calming this pain here.

Revised 6/16/16

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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Recycled air on planes is germ laden. Why can’t airlines clean the air as it’s recycled?

Over many years and living in a big family, the only person who refused to adopt handwashing was The Father, my dearly beloved husband. He said he never saw his Dad wash his hands and that was good enough for him!!

Can airlines, who charge a lot for tickets, spend some money on passenger health?

I was a licensed massage therapist for several years and dabbled in aromatherapy. I had a client who often traveled to Europe for family vacations and she told me her young daughter invariably got sick from germs on the flight. I did some research and made this suggestion: Buy a new tiny jar of Vaseline, remove part of it so you can add essential oils, then add:

15 drops eucalyptus
20 drops tea tree
3-5 drops peppermint

Stir into the Vaseline well. When you are boarding the plane, apply the mixture just under your nose. It will not only keep your lips from getting dry, you will inhale the beneficial aroma from the oils, cleaning the air as you breathe it in.

When my client arrived in Europe and had been there a couple of days, she called me to tell me it worked like a charm! Her daughter, and her whole family because she put it on all of them, including her protesting husband, were feeling great! My husband and I have used it when we travel and have never caught anything from the cabin air.

I caution against using more peppermint than suggested as too much will burn your skin.

Bon voyage!! Safe travels!

Maybe the fashion of wearing gloves should return!

Do “simple” masks or gauze actually prevent a person from breathing in germs and/or bacteria? I doubt it. Would like to hear from an authority on this website and before I fly on an airplane, I will ask this question of my doctor.
People’s Pharmacy response: We share your skepticism.

I agree with Jane’s comments. Why not take s-i-m-p-l-e precautions by wearing masks and hand sanitizers in this day and age where invisible but sometimes deadly micro-organism can be transmitted from a desolate area straight into metropolitan cities within hours? It’s just so easy to wipe your hands, wipe down a tray, wear a mask… Too bad they don’t advise vacationers on cruise ships to do so. Maybe if they did, then we wouldn’t see all those vacationers vomiting over the railing and ruining hard earned (and costly) vacations or damaging the health of those more vulnerable to disease…

Since I am quite elderly, whenever I use an aircraft for traveling, I wear a simple gauze face mask. I may look weird, but I won’t have to worry about becoming ill once I arrive at my destination. Hand sanitizers are a must. Am surprised airlines don’t provide them free.

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