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Dirty Places, Part 2: Airplanes

Several years ago, I was a Pediatric Infectious Disease consultant for the company that makes Lysol. One of the members of our committee was a microbiologist who worked for the company. He conducted a clandestine study of airplane cleanliness by secretly taking swabs from the tray tables, bathrooms, air ducts, etc. on several flights around the U.S. The results were VERY eye-opening since several of those cultures grew out coliform bacteria (bacteria from our intestinal tract), and not necessarily found just in the toilet areas. He found it on the tray tables! He also found Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, and other disease-causing organisms throughout the plane. That poor man will never be the same again. He now disinfects EVERYTHING on all his flights; carrying his Lysol Spray, of course.

Over the last thirty years, I have flown quite a bit. As a medical provider, I take a particular interest in the habits and mannerisms of others. It is difficult not to notice someone coughing at the back of your head, sneezing on the seats, wiping their snotty noses and stuffing them in the magazine pouch, or watching a mother change a poopy* diaper (assumed to be poopy based on smell alone) on the adjacent seat (or tray table!). Since there are significant penalties for cancelling flights, people think nothing about flying while they are ill. In the close quarters of an airplane cabin microorganisms can be freely shared.

Fuel costs have skyrocketed, so airlines are cutting flights and stuffing even more people in those seats. Flights turn around quickly, so the flight crew only has time to pick up the trash. They do not have time to disinfect (not the same as wiping off) the tray tables. I hope they disinfect the toilets, but something tells me this is not always done, at least to my satisfaction, anyway.

In my Blog about dirty toilets, I mentioned that I have developed an iron bladder over the years. I especially avoid using the toilet on an airplane whenever possible. With a few hundred people sharing a few toilets, they start looking like those porta-potties that you see at the county fair. If you could SEE bacteria with the naked eye, airplane bathrooms would be virtual Petrie dishes.

Unless you are flying with two other friends known to be well, there is a good chance you will be exposed to some infectious illness on your flight. Many airlines do have HEPA filters for the circulating air; some still do not. HEPA filters are good, but they will not filter the wet sneeze of a fellow passenger or the unwashed hands of someone returning from the toilet. Breathing the exhaled air of hundreds of other people in that airborne tunnel is not one of the healthiest environments I could imagine.

Some suggestions to reduce your infectious disease exposure on air flights:

1. Wash your hands thoroughly and often, and avoid touching your eyes or nose – the main entry points for disease-causing microorganisms.
2. Carry some disinfectant wipes for the tray tables and seat arms. It is a good idea to wipe down the window if you are sitting in this particular seat. There can be some odd-looking stuff on that window!
3. On short flights, avoid using the airline toilet. If you must, do so with caution. Short of wearing a Hazmat suit, you are putting yourself at risk. Again, carry those disinfectant wipes with you to the toilet and use them. After carefully washing your hands (again), use a paper towel to flush the toilet and open the door again.
4. Notice if your seat-mates are ill. If they are blowing their noses, sneezing, coughing, etc., then be extra, extra careful. If there are empty seats (unlikely), then consider sitting somewhere else.
5. Bring your own magazines.
6. Stay hydrated. When your own mucous membranes dry out, you are more susceptible to respiratory organisms. Drink plenty of WATER, especially on long flights. The air in the cabin is usually dry, so use a saline nasal spray.

When you arrive safely at your destination, you are still at risk. It is not unusual to get ill when you are traveling, since you may not have any acquired immunity to circulating diseases in other communities. We tend to develop herd immunity with our family, friends, and co-workers, but when you are traveling the herd quickly changes. Respiratory viruses (colds) can have an incubation period from 12 to 48 hours, so don’t be surprised if you get one of these unwanted gifts on your vacation.

Related Topics: Bacteria Still Onboard Airline Drinking Water, Health Toll on Flight Attendants

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If you’re just now joining us, you’ll want to read Public Toilets (part 1) and Doctors’ Offices (part 3).


The opinions expressed in WebMD Second Opinion are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. Second Opinion are... Expand


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