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'Can I Catch COVID on a Plane?'

man in mask on airplane
By Elizabeth Hanes, BSN, RNOctober 5, 2020
From the WebMD Archives

If you’re debating whether to fly across the country (or around the world) to spend the holidays with family and friends, you might be wondering, can I catch COVID-19 on a plane?

Yes, it is possible. But how likely is it? Well, we’re still not exactly sure. As with all things COVID-related, the science on this continues to evolve (shocker!).

First of all, let’s be clear -- any kind of traveling right now increases your risk of catching COVID-19.

Of course, it’s natural to be concerned about flying, specifically -- after all, it puts you in an enclosed space with other passengers who may be infected (and not even know it). But many experts say overall risk of picking up the virus in the aircraft itself is “relatively slim” (emphasis is mine -- it’s the nurse in me), and a recently released study seems to back them up. The low risk is, in part, due to the air recirculation system in most airplanes, which replaces the cabin’s air with fresh air every 2 to 3 minutes. Additionally, most planes are equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, similar to those used in hospital intensive care units, which filter out 99.9% of particles.

Still, there’s much we don’t know about this virus, and two other recent studies suggest that sharing an airplane compartment is not entirely without risk.

In one case, a passenger aboard a flight from London to Hanoi, Vietnam, seems to have infected 15 fellow travelers. In another case, four passengers on a plane from Boston to Hong Kong became ill with COVID-19 after their flight. Because they each tested positive for the exact same strain of SARS-CoV-2, researchers strongly believe they must have infected each other aboard the flight. It’s important to note that both of these flights took place in early March -- before masks were worn regularly -- and both were long-haul flights, one clocked in at over 10 hours and the other over 15. (It is not yet known what role, if any, flight time might play in the risk of contracting COVID-19 on a flight.)

It’s likely to be quite a while before researchers can tell us exactly what circumstances and behaviors increase the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission while flying (and while doing most everything else, for that matter).

In the meantime, if you do decide to travel by plane, plan carefully to lessen your risk of  exposure to SARS-CoV-2. Try to choose airlines or flights with reduced seating capacity to maximize the space between passengers. Pick an airline that requires masks, and wear your own mask at all times in the airport and on the plane. Avoid removing your mask onboard to eat or drink. Try to avoid using the airplane toilet because the enclosed space may harbor more germs in the air and on surfaces. Maintain as much distance between yourself and others as possible. Use hand sanitizer or wash your hands as frequently as possible before and during your flight.

Also, keep in mind, we’ve been talking here specifically about the risk inside of a plane, which is a more controlled environment. But when you travel by air, you come into contact with people (and surfaces) at multiple points in the process -- waiting in security lines at the airport, in the cab getting to/from the airport, etc. So you need to factor in those points of potential exposure as well if you’re considering flying.

Any kind of travel increases the risk that you might unknowingly carry COVID-19 to people at your destination, or you might bring the virus back home to your loved ones. Before you choose to travel, ask yourself if these risks are worth it. And if you do decide to travel by plane, think about self-isolating after the flight for 14 days to keep others safe.




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