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How to avoid germs on planes and cruise ships

By
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Picking up a bug can seriously spoil your holiday. No one wants to catch the dreaded airplane cold or cruise ship tummy upset. There are plenty of things to do to reduce your risk even though there's no 100% guarantee you'll avoid them completely.

Avoid catching a cold on a plane

Some travellers swear that going on a plane usually leaves them with a cold or flu. It's true that viruses and bacteria are much more easily spread when there are lots of people gathered together in close proximity to one another. Therefore, sitting on a plane for hours with hundreds of other people can be a potential risk.

"Planes are by their very nature enclosed spaces, but cabin crew are instructed to keep an eye out for people who are very clearly ill and can prevent them from boarding," says Sean Tipton, spokesperson for the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). "This is intended to help minimise the risk of disease transmission on board, particularly serious illnesses."

It's hard to give a definitive figure but one widely quoted study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research suggests you're 100 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane than in everyday life. It found a lot of that was down to the low cabin humidity levels. That dry air can cause your mucous membranes to lose moisture and become more susceptible to bugs.

Planes do have efficient air filtration systems that clean the air and don't just move it about though. "Air filters can help cut down the risk of infection to a certain extent," explains Sean.

The Civil Aviation Health Unit says that up to half of the air in the cabin is re-circulated and goes through highly efficient filters, like those used in operating theatres in hospitals, to remove bacteria and viruses before it's combined with outside air from the air-conditioning units. The CAA says this does help to get more moisture into the cabin air and doesn't lead to an increased infection rate.

The NHS suggests that transmission of infection may occur between passengers who are seated in the same area of an aircraft, usually as a result of a cough or sneeze, or by touch. It suggests this is no different from being near to someone in any other form of transport such as a train or bus.

Tips to avoid germs on planes

Good hygiene practice: Wash your hands before eating your airline meal and after using the toilet. Viruses and bacteria can survive for hours on your skin. If you then touch your mouth or eyes you can potentially contract an infection.

"It is difficult to avoid exposure to coughs and sneezes in crowded places but regular hand washing or use of hand wipes can help cut down the risks for catching colds and tummy upsets, says Professor Ron Eccles director of the Common Cold Research Centre.

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