Where Germs Lurk in Airports—And How to Avoid Them

Featured Article, Healthy Living, Healthy Travel
on May 22, 2014
woman traveling

Traveling this summer? While taking vacation can be beneficial for your health, airports and airplanes are hotbeds of nasty germs and bacteria that could make you sick. Not to mention, all of those bodies you squeeze by are teeming with germs waiting to glom onto you. Still, don’t rush out for a face mask or gloves yet—there are simpler ways to protect yourself while traveling.

“There are germs everywhere,” says primary care internist Michael Zimring, MD, Director of Travel Medicine, LLC at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore and co-author of Healthy Travel (Basic Health Publishing, 2005).”But they’re not going to kill you.  The trick is using common sense.”

We investigated to locate the major germ zones in airports and on airplanes. Below are the germy sites to beware of and how to protect yourself.

Your bare feet in the security line. There’s no getting around removing your shoes in order to go through security, but don’t go barefoot if you can help it, says Zimring: “You’ll pick up all the dirt from other people’s shoes.”  You can also pick up bacterial and fungal infections. The solution is simple: Wear socks or hose on your feet, at least for the line’s duration.

Tables. Whether it’s the burger bar or the airplane tray table, a lot of people’s hands touch them while they’re eating.  According to a 2007 study at the University of Arizona, 60 percent of tray tables on three major airlines tested positive for the sometimes killer superbug Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).  Zimring suggests carrying hand wipes so you can give those items a swipe before eating.  Wash your hands as well, especially before eating, and keep them out of your nose, eyes, and mouth.  Germs love those mucous membrane entryways.

Seats. People touch seats and seat backs in waiting areas, restrooms, restaurants, and as they lurch up the airplane aisles.  If you can, avoid doing the same.  And if you do touch them, wash your hands or use the hand sanitizer that you have wisely stowed in your pocket.

Pillows, blankets, headphones. “Who knows how the airlines clean those,” says Zimring. “The safest thing to do is to bring your own.  A 2007 Wall Street Journal study found that blankets are cleaned generally every 5 to 30 days.

Door handles, elevator and water cool buttons, handrails, overhead bin buttons. With all the hands groping each of these items, they’re teaming with germs.  After you touch them, clean your hands with a hand sanitizer. “Washing your hands is the secret of avoid passing germs back and forth,” says Zimring. He also suggests using a paper towel to open doors.

Best Precautions

Update your immunizations.  ”Flu is year round in the tropics,” says Zimring.  “So, get a flu shot before you travel.”  It’s also a good idea to get a tetanus shot, a vaccine for whooping cough, and a vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella if you have not had them.  Get a pneumonia vaccine if you have a chronic disease or if you’re 65 or older.  “If you are traveling overseas, get a vaccine for hepatitis A and B as well,” says Zimring.

Drink water.  “Staying hydrated helps your body fight disease, so it’s one of the most important ways of discouraging germs,” says Zimring.  “You’re well hydrated if you have to pee a lot.”

Don’t think of peeing often as a bother. It has another advantage: It keeps you walking, which will help prevent blood clots while you’re on the plane.

Skip the coffee and booze. Says Zimring, caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea and some sodas, and alcohol dehydrate you, weakening your body’s resistance to germs.