How to Avoid Getting Sick on a Plane

We’ve probably all flown when sick. This is not good – for you or your seatmates – but it’s understandable thanks to the high cost of rescheduling a flight (see change fees). So what to do? Check out these ideas.

Disclaimer: As they say, I’m no doctor, so don’t listen to me when it comes to medical advice; that’s where your own physician comes in.

Listen: Rick Seaney tells editor Anne McDermott he never gets sick on planes.

Worst behavior on planes – and what to do about that

Before Flying: What to Do

If feeling under the weather: If you’re the kind of patient who will delay seeing a doctor because you might get better, see your physician before flying because you might get worse. Nip whatever you’ve got in the bud, plus – if you’re doctor recommends it – this would be the perfect time to get that flu shot you’ve been putting off.

Get some sleep: Sleep can be great medicine, or so says folks at the renowned Mayo Clinic. I found this on their website:

  • “Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as the common cold. Lack of sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick.” – Mayo Clinic

Suppress coughs: If you are coughing and you must fly, the least you can do is lay in a supply of cough drops. The fewer people you share your germs with, the better.

Water at the airport: Get yourself a bottle at the airport once you pass the security checkpoint (which only allows liquids in quantities of 3.4 ounces or less). The latest advice I’ve seen says, don’t glug it all down in one huge gulp but continuously sip water throughout a flight.

Avoid these travel scams, too

Sick Seatmate: What to Do

Ask to be moved: Ask the flight attendant if you can move to a different seat. Warning: There are very few empty seats on planes these days so this may not work. If that’s the case, on to Plan B.

Do what you can to protect yourself: There are no guarantees with Plan B but it might help and you don’t have much choice. So try the following:

  • Move your head away from the offending party and if you’ve got a scarf or coat or clean blanket from home, consider covering up your nose and face.*
  • Keep your hands meticulously clean (see below).
  • Some suggest adjusting the overhead air flow nozzle so the flow moves down in front of your face provides you with at least some clean air, and more on that next.

*Note: If your airline is passing out blankets, don’t take one. You have no idea when it was last laundered.

Bad Cabin Air: What to Do

Don’t worry about it: At least that’s what I’ve read from both impartial experts and aircraft manufacturer Boeing, which has the following Q&A on its site:

Q: Doesn’t the recirculated air [on a plane] just keep recirculating?

A: No. Outside-air mixing replenishes the cabin air constantly. Replenishment assures that the recirculated portion does not endlessly recirculate but is rapidly diluted and replaced with outside air. During cruise or on the ground, the outside air is drawn in at the same rate that cabin air is exhausted out of the airplane.

Germy Surfaces: What to Do

Hand sanitizing wipes: I’m told these are good for germ-ridden surfaces on a plane, the worst of which include tray tables and lavatories. However, you can’t use wipes on aisle seatbacks and what do you suppose sick passengers grab onto when they head down the plane to the restroom? Avoid touching them.

Wash your hands properly: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the old fashioned method involving soap and water is still the best but you must wash hands for at least 20 seconds, and use clean running water. If that’s not available, use a hand sanitizer that’s at least 60 percent alcohol.

More from Rick Seaney:

How to Avoid Getting Sick on a Plane


Published: December 10, 2013