Excess Baggage: Unseating Infectious Bugs this Holiday Season


The start of the holiday period next week will bring families and friends together, thanks in part to mass transit, including commercial airlines. Although contracting a respiratory viral infection such as the common cold or the flu can occur at any time and any place, traveling poses an even higher risk because of the exposure to new environments and crowds. Studies show that person-to-person transmission of common viral infections occurs primarily after being coughed or sneezed upon, or by touching inanimate objects such as tray tables, door knobs, and escalator railings that may be contaminated with infectious organisms and serve in their transmission. So before you board an aircraft, practice the following and you will put the odds overwhelmingly in your favor of not catching a cold or the flu.

Keep Yourself Well Hydrated

Proper hydration is critical in keeping your immune system in optimal condition. Mucous membranes serve as our initial barrier against offending microorganisms and contain bug-neutralizing enzymes that require proper hydration to function optimally. Keep in mind that the humidity aboard commercial aircrafts is greatly diminished and can be as low as 10 percent on extended flights. Several studies have shown that daily use of saline nasal spray can reduce the chance of getting upper respiratory tract infections and sinusitis by increasing the frequency of nasal ciliary beating. The tiny hairs on the lining of the nasal passages actually beat back and forth to remove particles and microorganisms from the nose. The mucous membranes in our eyes, nose and mouth also serve as our initial barrier of protection against invading microorganisms and the saline helps maintain proper moisture at this level which is critical for our immune barrier to function properly.

Use Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer

Bring an alcohol–based hand sanitizer with you whenever you travel and sanitize your hands frequently. Also avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth in crowded spaces before sanitizing your hands. Most people touch their mouth and nose approximately 200 times a day, providing ample opportunity for invading pathogens. Alcohol-based products must have a 70 percent alcohol content in order to be effective. Soap and water is also every effective, but beware that the soap and water sources in public spaces, like aircrafts, can be contaminated. Sanitizing your hands with an alcohol-based product after washing your hands in a public restroom may provide better protection. Sanitizer products containing benzalkonium chloride and natural proprietary plant oils are also available and claim they cause less drying of skin. Know that not all of the products have been specifically tested regarding their effectiveness against flu or other viruses.

Clean Your Seating Area After Boarding

Wipe down the tray aboard planes, buses, trains, etc. with a little alcohol–based sanitizer before you use it. Air carriers with flight turn over times of less than one hour do not routinely disinfect the seat trays or seat handles. One study found methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria on 60 percent of seat trays on three separate commercial flights, and several studies have demonstrated that the restroom on the aircraft can be a source of significant coliform contamination.

Increase the Ventilation at Your Seat

Up to 30,000 droplets are generated whenever we cough, sneeze or speak, and these can be propelled up to six feet, possibly landing on your mucous membranes, the gateways to our bodies for most respiratory viruses. Minimize this risk by turning the overhead air vent above your seat to medium flow and position it so that the air current is directed just slightly in front of your face.

Consider Taking Elderberry Extract or North American Ginseng

Although the effectiveness of any complementary and alternative therapies, such as garlic, echinacea, vitamin C and zinc, for treating or preventing influenza or other upper respiratory tract infections has not been established beyond reasonable doubt, elderberry extract has been shown to have anti-influenza properties. It appears to neutralize hemagglutinin spikes of influenza A viruses. And, while it won’t prevent flu or the common cold, it might get you over the flu or cold a day or two sooner. elderberry extract has never been studied in pregnant women and children so they should not use it, and individuals on multiple medications should check first with their doctor before using to ensure no drug interaction will occur. North American ginseng also has powerful immune boosting effects and is safe for children older than eight years old. A 2005 randomized clinical trial found North American ginseng reduced the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections or the common cold in individuals taking the supplement by 16 percent, and shortened the duration of the infection by 35 percent.

Speak With Your Doctor

Check in with your doctor prior to traveling if you are pregnant, have a serious respiratory condition, are taking immunosuppressive medications for organ transplantation or are actively undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Experience shows that individuals with these conditions are at higher risk for complications from respiratory tract infections, and they should take extra precautions whenever they travel.

Stay Home If You Are Ill

Air carriers perform informal gate screenings of passengers. Chances are if you are coughing vigorously or appear ill at the gate, you might be pulled aside and questioned. Travelers who cancel travel plans should obtain a note from their physician stating they were unfit to travel due to unexpected contagious illness and provide that to the air carrier for rescheduling or refund. That said, most airlines consider full refunds on a case-by-case basis. Travel insurance is an absolute requirement since becoming stricken with the flu, or becoming hospitalized can happen to anybody at anytime.

Stay safe, enjoy the holidays and don’t pick up any baggage no one should–like flu.

Dr. Gendreau is Chief Medical Officer of Beverly Hospital and Addison Gilbert Hospital and Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, MA


*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

MORE IN Health News