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Do airplanes make you sick?

Can you get sick from flying on an airplane?  When people are booking flights for their families, they're also booking for their germs.

A busy travel season means you’ll be jostling for legroom alongside lots of other travelers, and you’ll share close quarters with their bacteria and viruses. But does being on an airplane actually increase your chances of getting sick?

It can, says Piedmont family medicine physician Lauren Powell, M.D. But in most ways, she says, airplanes are just like anywhere else. Proper cleaning can usually safeguard you, but any place with so many people packed together could spell trouble.

“More people means more germs,” she says.

Where the germs lurk

Much of your risk depends on how your airline cleans its planes. If staff members are thoroughly sanitizing everything, there’s little reason for concern, Dr. Powell says.

Problems arise from high-touch areas that may not be scrubbed well. Those can include:

  • Lavatory sinks
  • Handles
  • Tray tables
  • Overhead luggage bins

The issue is compounded, she says, by the fact that plane cabins are enclosed environments. But the good news is that planes aren’t necessarily bastions of aggressive or rare types of bacteria.

“From a germ perspective, it’s just the same germs,” Dr. Powell says. So if you do get sick, you’ll likely come down with something common like a cold. 

How to protect yourself and others

To give yourself the best chance of staying healthy, Dr. Powell recommends some preemptive measures before you fly:

  • Bring antibacterial wipes for use on each surface you touch.
  • Get a good night’s sleep before you travel.
  • Eat a well-balanced meal before your flight.
  • Load up on vitamin C with a supplement or foods like pineapple and mango.

Dr. Powell says it’s also important to ensure you aren’t the source of illness yourself aboard a flight.

“People get sick, but they really want to go on their vacation,” she says.

She recommends purchasing travel insurance for trips. If you absolutely must travel while ill, she says, wear a mask when on the plane and at the airport. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after you cough, sneeze or blow your nose, after going to the bathroom, and before eating or touching your face. If you can’t get to a sink, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

“I would really encourage people that if you don’t feel well, try not to travel,” she says.

Feeling sick after a flight? As long as your symptoms aren’t severe, trying waiting them out for a couple of days, but see a doctor after that. 

Dr. Powell practices at Piedmont Physicians Buckhead, located at 35 Collier Road Northwest, Suite 500, Atlanta, GA 30309. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Powell or one of our other primary care providers. Save time, book online.

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