Ask Healthy Living: Do Airplanes Make Us Sick?

03/01/2014 11:31 am ET | Updated Mar 11, 2015
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Why do you catch a cold after you've been on a plane?

March is a busy time for the travel industry, thanks to the unyielding supply of Spring Break revelers. And while most travel health concerns focus on the ailments one can pick up in a host country, many travelers have voiced a sneaking suspicion that the airplane itself could be the cause of their discomfort.

Between the crowds of potential disease carriers people, stress and lack of rest and the airplane environment itself, the truth is that many people will bring home more than a couple of tchotchkes and souvenir t-shirts. But is it the fault of the flight? The answer is (predictably) somewhat muddled. We asked an infectious disease expert, Dr. Amesh Adalja to break it down for us.

"When you go to the airport, you're around people from all over the world. And not just people -- also their germs," Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told The Huffington Post. "Like any place of mass congregation, it's a viral exchange center."

While some people live in close quarters (Manhattan subway commuters, we're looking at you), many others spend their days in the company of a few familiar people, with whose pathogenic contributions they are already familiar (and potentially resistant). Once in an airport terminal or on an actual plane, familiarity goes out the window. "Let's say there's an upper respiratory infection outbreak in California and someone harboring that illness gets on a plane," explained Adalja. "People from other places could be exposed and carry the illness with them."

That's where the role of air travel ends. Much of the other charges against airplane environments are exaggerated -- or entirely untrue. One common misconception is that the recycled air of an airplane contributes to the spread of disease, but touching your tray table or the sink handle in the bathroom is far more likely the culprit. Airplane air tests as higher quality than the air in most office buildings, according to Adalja. And although airplanes recycle their air, it still must pass through high-quality filters that sterilize and remove pathogens. Plus, according to an NBC report, 50 percent of the air is actually drawn from the atmosphere and is fresh.

There is some concern that the air's dryness affects the nasal cavity, causing small cracks in the protective mucus lining of the nose and making passengers more susceptible to virus. While that's true, dry air can have a protective effect too: Viruses prefer humid, moist air and the majority of them are less likely to spread in the arid environment of a plane, according to Adalja.

As for the germs on your seat and tray table, it's certainly possible that you could contract something by touching these surfaces. Some studies have detected dangerous pathogens on hard surfaces -- one 2007 study detected Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) on 60 percent of the tray tables surveyed on three different airlines. But most pathogenic microbes last no more than a couple of hours, so even if a sick passenger shed his virus on your seat and the cleaning crew missed it in between flights, you've likely missed the window of infection. And an airplane is no more laden with potentially harmful bacteria than your average daycare center or office building.

More likely, the cause of a post-trip nasal drip is the behaviors around travel that make you, well, a little run down. Travel can make you sleep deprived, dehydrated and apt to have an extra drink or two (who doesn't like a nerve-calming glass of wine in-flight?). If you were already harboring a cold virus from back home, these small stressors could diminish your immune system's ability to the point of feeling ill.

So the next time you're on a flight, be sure to get enough rest and enough water. And while it helps to be wary of any sneezing passengers, chances are the plane itself isn't making you sick.

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