THE BLOG

Coming to Public Transportation Near You: The Flu

01/29/2014 12:59 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2014
  • Denise Mattson Public voices fellow, OpEd project at DePaul University

Although it seems like it can't get much worse than it is now during this polar vortex, the flu usually hits its peak in February, so the worst is yet to come. And with journeys to worldwide business centers back in full swing, unfortunate travelers are among the most vulnerable to this malicious malady.

I am convinced my latest spell was contracted from a contagious passenger on my commute, so I looked for evidence to support my suspicion. It turns out that scientists know just how easy it is for wayward germs to find a path into your nasal passages in confined spaces like planes, trains and busses. If you knew what they knew, you would never take any form of public transportation again.

Case in point: Scientists at Purdue University confirmed every flier's worst fears in their study tracking how a coughing, talking airline passenger disrespects your interpersonal boundaries with a vengeance. They traced Mr. Sicko's "expiratory droplet cloud" as it disbursed throughout a plane's interior jet stream as far as seven rows away, first accosting the passenger immediately in front of him with the sheer force of his cough before the cloud went aerial, hitting the ceiling and forcing its way toward the back of the plane. Fellow passengers can inhale up to 90,000 droplets from him during a four-hour flight, some of which inevitably carry infectious agents. They are doomed.

There is virtually no seat on a plane, other than the cockpit, that is safe from infected passengers. Perhaps one could lock himself in the bathroom, but there are hard surfaces there made of stainless steel and plastic where germs tend to survive longer and where a whole different set of microorganisms to be avoided thrive.

More evidence comes from the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters who sneezed for science to illustrate how far and fast human nasal spray travels. In their experiments, bodily fluids reached points 17 feet away and soared at 39 mph. The interior cabin width of a Boeing 737 is 11 feet by 7 inches. Do the math. Your fate is sealed.

In a related experiment, they determined a runny nose produces four tablespoons of mucus an hour and can spread germs around a party "like a social butterfly."

Yes, a flu shot will help. But only if it's the flu that's circulating in the airstream of your vessel, and the shot may only lessen the severity of the symptoms you contract. A bad cold can fell you just as hard.

There are a few things you can do to protect yourself, such as checking the WebMD cold and flu tracker tool that lets you search by zip code to learn the level of cold and flu symptoms reported by site users near you. Use that to determine how risky a trip on public transportation might be. Or visit the Google flu trends site, which projects illness intensity based on search terms that have proven accurate in the past; or click the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flu view, a self-described weekly surveillance report based on specimens tested, doctors' reports of patients seeking treatment and flu fatalities.

But face it. Germs are conspiring against you. On public transportation, it is nearly impossible to find an escape route from menacing contagious mucus droplets.

They seem to get extra points if they land you in bed, so your best defense is an aggressive offense. If you are Mr. Sicko, stay off trains, planes and other confined spaces when you are coughing, have a cold or have the flu. Wash your hands so your germs don't live in infamy, still potent up to 48 hours or more. We can win this war if you and your dirty Kleenex stay home.

Denise Mattson is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project at DePaul University, commutes by train 120 minutes daily and spent 12 hours on airplanes last month.