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Avoiding the Coronavirus While Traveling

passengers on a plane
Michael  W. Smith, MD - Blogs
By Michael W. Smith, MDBoard-certified internistFebruary 28, 2020
From the WebMD Archives
Editor's Note: For the latest updates on the 2020 coronavirus outbreak, see our news coverage.

As an avid traveler, I’m always aware of the germs that may be lurking around every corner. With the spread of coronavirus, you may feel like you’re powerless when surrounded by hordes of people, but there’s a lot you can do.

The good news is that everything you’re hopefully already doing during flu season are the same steps you want to ramp into high gear to help protect yourself and your family from this new viral threat.

We can’t control where the virus is, but we do have control over whether it makes its way into our bodies. Both flu and coronavirus are respiratory viruses, meaning they do their dirty deed by infecting our respiratory systems. While they may infect us when people cough or sneeze on us, they also commonly enter our bodies because we infect ourselves. We touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face, giving the virus easy access.

One study showed we touch our face about 23 times an hour. That’s nearly 400 opportunities while we are awake for us to insert a germ into our bodies. Don’t touch your face! This includes your eyes, nose and mouth.

You won’t be perfect, and that’s why washing your hands frequently is so important. Don’t skimp. With soap on your hands, rub your hands vigorously together for 20 seconds. It’s longer than you think. If you need a timer, sing “Happy Birthday to You” from beginning to end twice. After rinsing, dry your hands well to help get rid of any stragglers. Germs live better in moist environments.

After washing, do everything you can to not recontaminate your hands. Once your hands are clean, don’t touch anything you don’t have to. Use a paper towel to open doors or push them open with your elbow or shoulder.

Washing your hands with soap and water is your #1 best strategy. However, we don’t always have access like when we’re being well-behaved travelers and staying in our plane seat. In that case, have plenty of alcohol-based sanitizer handy. Use a brand with a minimum of 60% alcohol.

Here’s a tip that many people miss when it comes to hand sanitizer. In order for it to most effectively kill the germs, your hands must dry. Put it on, rub your hands together until it’s dry -- don’t forget in between your fingers.

Now you’re sitting as comfortably as you can in your plane seat, so what about the arm rest, tray, vent above your head, the media screen and anything else your hands may come in contact with? I once heard that the average plane flies about 5 times a day. That’s a lot of opportunity for germy hands to previously contaminate your surroundings.

After someone has coughed or sneezed the flu virus into the air, it can live for up to 48 hours on a surface. A recent study showed coronavirus could survive at least this long or even potentially for days depending on temperature and humidity levels. Time to break out the disinfecting wipes. Rub ALL these areas down good. Don’t be stingy with the wipes. You may need more than one. Follow the directions on the package to make sure the surface stays wet for the recommended amount of time to kill the germs.

What if you’re sitting next to someone that appears to be sick? Nothing makes me cringe more than being a few inches away from someone coughing, sneezing and blowing their nose. I’m going on vacation and don’t want to get sick – even if it’s just a cold! Given the current coronavirus situation, hopefully the flight crew is aware and have done their part to ensure the passenger isn’t a risk to others. That said, there’s nothing wrong with asking to be moved. Unfortunately, in today’s crowded planes, that’s not a luxury many of us have.

You can discretely make the flight crew aware. Let them assess the situation and determine if there is any risk. Flight crews are on increasingly high alert. If the person has a fever and symptoms such as coughing, difficulty breathing, or just appears quite ill, they may choose to remove the person from the flight. If the person doesn’t have a fever and the risk appears low, another option is for the sick person to wear a mask to prevent spread. A less effective strategy is for you to wear a mask.

Why don’t we recommend everyone wear a mask? It’s not a particularly effective strategy. One of the biggest benefits is a mask makes you more aware about not touching your face. But they also give you a false sense of security. They often don’t fit well, meaning the virus can still make its way around the mask. If you forget and scratch your nose, for example, the protection is gone.

Now you’ve made it through the flight hopefully unscathed, so what about the hotel? Wipe that down too. Sanitize anything that would have likely been touched. This includes the TV remote, cabinet and bathroom surfaces, the hotel room phone, tables, light switches.

Happy, safe travels! As for me, I’m off to Costa Rica with my hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and the diligence to keep my hands and face clean.


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About the Author
Michael W. Smith, MD

Michael Smith, MD, CPT, is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and WebMD’s Chief Medical Editor. He is also an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer with a passion for helping people live a healthy, active lifestyle. He appears regularly as an expert on national and local broadcast media.

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