Flu-Proof Your Flight
Last year, during the H1N1 hysteria, Corinne McDermott packed up her three kids and an arsenal of antibacterial wipes and headed to Toronto’s airport. On the plane, she set to work swabbing armrests, tray tables, and the window shade. Then she used diaper wipes to go over everyone’s hands. “Did we get H1N1? No,” she says. “Did we still get colds? Yes.”
McDermott knows a lot about family travel—she runs Have Baby Will Travel, a website about traveling with babies, toddlers, and young children. But if you’re traveling by air, especially during the flu-rampant holiday season, it’s very difficult to survive without getting sick. Still, there are steps you can take to help flu-proof your flight.
It’s no surprise that airplanes are cold and flu incubators—they’re full of shared surfaces, recycled air, and ill-mannered people. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Research revealed that travelers may be 100 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane as anywhere else. And according to the American Lung Association, as many as 1 in 5 Thanksgiving travelers carry the influenza virus.
Crafty marketers have capitalized on flu hysteria with myriad herbal remedies and travel accessories. But most doctors say that general pre-trip wellness is your best defense. “Have a healthy immune system before you leave,” says Vanessa Maier, M.D., M.P.H., of Cleveland’s Case Western Medical Center. “That means eating lots of fruits and vegetables, getting at least seven hours of sleep a night, and exercising regularly.”
While a healthy body is better equipped to fend off the wheezy guy to your right or the close talker to your left, it’s also important to protect yourself from yourself. “Avoid touching your face, nose, or mouth,” says Seattle general practitioner Bruce Kaler, M.D. “The flu and other respiratory illnesses aren’t usually airborne. The majority of transmission is self-inflicted.”
And yet many frequent fliers rely, not unlike McDermott, on ritual as much as they do common sense. “If my husband takes Emergen-C, he doesn’t get sick,” says Joanna Belbey, a New Jersey–based financial training exec. But during the couple’s last trip to Asia, he ran out and, says Belbey, “went down like a stone.”
Keeping yourself flu-free through the holidays isn’t about luck or superstition. But it doesn’t have to be an exercise in OCD, either. “A few simple steps and planning should help you have a healthy and successful trip,” says Kaler. “Don’t let paranoia about germs distract you from the enjoyable goals of holiday travel.”
A recent study by Carnegie Mellon researchers revealed that insomniacs and short sleepers are nearly three times as likely to catch a cold as their better-rested counterparts. “Getting adequate sleep before, during, and after a trip is essential,” says Case Western Medical Center’s Vanessa Maier, M.D., M.P.H. “A tired immune system is a weak immune system.” In addition, sleep helps keep constant the body’s levels of cortisol, a hormone that can boost the immune system. Aim for at least seven hours a night, and at least eight the night before any flight.
Take Your Vitamins
Low levels of vitamin D can affect immune strength. Consider a 1,000-IU supplement if you spend a lot of time indoors or don’t drink much milk. Meanwhile, zinc—found in chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and tahini—has been proven to boost the immune system, while zinc lozenges (like Zicam and Cold-EEZE) may help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. According to Maier, vitamin C supplements like Emergen-C and Airborne have not been proven effective as preventive measures, but when taken at the onset of symptoms may reduce your downtime. And beware over-the-counter, anti-flu medicines, which have not been shown to be effective.
Eat Your Fruits, Veggies, and…Oysters?
A well-balanced diet is key to keeping up immunity, says Maier. While consistently healthy eating habits are best, try overloading on raw fruits and vegetables beginning two weeks before your trip; at the airport, opt for an apple or banana over an energy bar or that “tuna” sandwich. Oysters, meanwhile, contain more zinc than any other food. A half-dozen a day or so before you fly could provide enough zinc to keep you flu-free from BOS-ORD-LAX (a caveat: dine at airport raw bars at your own risk).
Go with Your Gut
“As much as 80 percent of our immunity and resistance depends on the health of our digestive tract,” says Tom Potisk, a Wisconsin-based chiropractor and holistic doctor. Enhance normal digestive activity by taking probiotic supplements, found at Whole Foods Market or any health food store, twice a day starting a few days before travel. (They’ll also help keep you regular and minimize gas, which your seatmates will surely appreciate.)
Pack a Kit
Stock your carry-on with the essentials: antibacterial hand sanitizer, tissues, eye drops, nasal spray, and lip balm. Use hand sanitizer as soon as you settle into your seat, after touching public surfaces, and before eating. “If your lips and eyes are dry, you’re more likely to touch them and carry germs to your face,” says American Osteopathic Association spokesdoc Kelli M. Ward. A saline rinse at the start and end of a flight can clear the nasal passage of bacteria, viruses, and irritants. Some M.D.s also advise coating the inside of your nostrils with Vaseline to keep germs and other airborne illnesses out. As for the Kleenex, bring enough to share: as the American Lung Association reminds us, the flu is transmitted via tiny droplets that can travel up to three feet during a sneeze.
Sorry, folks: we mean water, and eight ounces of it for every hour in flight. A cocktail might sound relaxing, or a way to celebrate the start of a vacation, but everyone knows alcohol is dehydrating. Dehydration then causes headaches, drowsiness, and an immune system that screams open for business. If you really want a drink, Ward advises having just one, paired with two glasses of water.
Appalachian State University researchers found that moderate exercise increases immune function 100 percent and can also help you recover from a virus more quickly. But don’t overdo it: too much high-intensity exercise can actually increase your chances of getting sick. During flight or airport stopovers, get up and move around at least once every half hour, says Maier, and try to stick to your cardio or yoga regimen when you’re away from home.
Give Yourself Props
Air travel can be rough on the musculoskeletal system, which can, in turn, tire the body and make it more susceptible to catching whatever’s going around. Using a small pillow at your lower back can aid the natural curvature of your back and help prevent back pain. Bring your own pillowcase or, better yet, your own pillow. To avoid swollen ankles, says Potisk, rotate your feet while sitting, as if drawing a circle with your big toe.
Don’t Talk to Strangers
Even though most airlines remove 99 percent of airborne viruses through high-efficiency air-circulation systems, most infections are picked up through hand-to-hand contact. Be aware that others may be sick and either not know it—or not care. If you find yourself next to someone who’s coughing and could be contagious, ask for a different seat. The airline might not be willing or able to accommodate, but it’s worth a try.
Get the Flu Shot
The flu shot is the single most important precaution in preventing contracting the flu during air travel, or anytime. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly encourage that every American—especially young kids, pregnant women, those over 65, and anyone with a chronic illness—get immunized every year. Remember that flu resistance isn’t instant, so while it might be acceptable—if needlessly stressful—to wait until the morning of your trip to pack, aim to get your shot at least two weeks in advance.