Top Tips For In Flight Health

29th Dec 2019

‘An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure’ Benjamin Franklin


Nepal client Dan had been well when he left home and yet, within a few days of arriving in Kathmandu, he had a sore throat and streaming cold.  It was a really unfortunate start to his dream Himalayas dream trip and it took the best part of ten days before he really felt at full strength again.  He did manage to achieve our expedition objectives and yet the early set back definitely didn’t help. This was in 2012.  After the trip I must admit that I didn’t think much more about it…..and I haven’t since…until last November.  We were heading back from our latest Nepal trip and I really wanted to arrive home feeling well.  I had a busy work time ahead and getting home sick wasn’t on my agenda.  

We relaxed in the departure lounge and you might guess what happened.  A couple arrived in the lounge and sat nearby and it was immediately clear they were burdened with very heavy colds.  No problem I thought, until we boarded the plane and it turned out I was sat right next to Mr and Mrs Flu.  We then had a long transfer wait in Abu Dhabi before finally boarding the flight to Manchester.  You guessed it, the cold couple were in the row behind.  At the time we laughed at the odds of this happening, but sure enough a few days after arriving home we both had tickly coughs and the sneezes soon followed.  

Anyway, that’s all in the past and the reality of that situation is that maybe there was nothing we could really have done.  After all, we were getting sneezed and coughed on for double figure hours.  But, it did get me thinking.  Was there anything an air traveller can do to reduce their chances of getting sick and how much more at risk are we on flights? Also, how could we advise our clients to get them too and from their adventure with us in the best possible health?  I did some research and found lots of research, facts and useful advice.  We’ll be sending this to our future clients and hopefully it may be of interest to our blog readers too. So here it is - 10 Peak Mountaineering top tips for avoiding contracting colds and flu…..

1. It seems clear from research that you are more at risk of catching colds on flights.  A study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research, for one example, suggested you may be 113 times more likely to contract a cold on a flight compared to when on the ground. They looked at many factors and yet the most significant, in their opinion at least, related to the low humidity conditions on board.  Most commercial airlines run at 10% or lower humidity and this, the journal suggests, drastically reduces the ability of our mucus membranes to fight off cold and flu germs.  Staying hydrated is a key way to avoid this and also considering using a nasal hydration spray during the flight could help keep the protective membranes moist.  There are various types of product for this on the market and we’ll be testing some out on our early 2020 trips.  Some sources also say that breathing through moist fabric may help, but I’m not sure how easy this will be to source on a flight.     

2. Research has also shown that the most germ laden areas on a flight are the ones you’ll touch most often. Many types of germs can live for hours, or days in some cases), and so contact between your hands and these surfaces is potentially very high risk.  Areas of particular concern include the tray table, seat belt buckle, chair arm rests and seat pocket.  Oh yes, and the touch screen of the video screen has been found to be particularly bad too.  Basically, anywhere several hundred passengers have touched recently is bound to be laden with germs.  So, take some antibacterial wipes on board and give any likely surfaces a good wipe down.  Similarly, use anti-bacterial gel anytime your hands could transport bugs to your mouth such as before eating or after using the toilet.  

3. Completely avoiding contact with some of these surfaces makes sense too.  Do you really need to stash things in that bug infested seat pocket?  I’ve started taking a storage bag on board that contains all my inflight bits and bobs.  My main carry on bag can go in the overhead locker and at my seat I have all the other bits safe in one place. I no longer store anything in the seat pocket at anytime as this small bag can fit at the side of my seat or often just lives on my knee. 

4. As you might expect, the toilet is a much used part of the plane and so it will inevitably be laden with germs.  Sterilise your hands carefully after using the loo and also consider choosing your seating position as far away from a toilet as possible. Think about that loo door handle too - better to sterilise your hands again once you are back in your seat.  

5. Seating position in general is also significant.  Studies show that the aisle seats have more contamination risk than the window seat simply because it is in a thoroughfare. People wander along and touch the headrest as they battle along the aisle and any sneezers walking along the aisle will be directly above you.  For that reason, the window seat is reckoned to be a better choice.  

6. A popular flight myth is that germs are carried by aircraft ventilation systems.  Infact, most aircraft generally have very efficient filters.  But, that airflow is actually very important.  Having the ventilation nossle pointed across the front of your face can create an efficient arc of air that will keep germs from entering your facial orifices. I read one bit of useful advice from a doctor who said that if you could feel the air hitting your hands when they are in you lap then the air flow was in a good position.  Sounds reasonable.    

7. Several sources I looked at also suggested giving inflight hot drinks a miss.  The water used for these drinks comes from onboard tanks which maybe filled from taps in whichever airport was being visited at the time.  Maybe the water source wasn’t as reliable as you’d hope or maybe the water wasn’t quite hot enough to kill any bugs.  Either way, it is hard to be sure and so the surest way isn’t to risk it. The counter argument to that is that hot drinks can help stimulate the mucous membranes and also that the steam from the drinks has a hydrating effect.  I don’t know exactly what is best here, but personally I steer clear of hot drinks on all flights.

8. Avoid the sick people!  As my experience on the flights back from Nepal showed, having sick people near to you must increase your risk of getting sick too.  If you find yourself in that position it is worth having a chat with the cabin staff to see if you can move seats. This won’t be possible if the flight is full of course, but in some situations you may get lucky.

9. Be careful to ensure any in flight blankets and pillows are clean to use.  Bugs can live on these surfaces for some time and I’ve heard mixed reports on how often airlines change/clean these.  Sometimes you’ll find freshly wrapped ones on your seat, but if not then do consider how safe they are to use.  It seems some airlines may just change them once a day and some might only wash them once a week.  Yuk!

10. I’ll group these last 2 together because they fit into a group that I’d say has no clear evidence to support them. Firstly, there is an argument that dental mouthwash is worth considering because it will keep your mouth clean and also keep the throat moist.  Why not?  Lastly, consider vitamins.  There seems to be no conclusive scientific evidence on whether this works or not, but some people claim that regularly using a multi-vitamin while travelling may boost their body immune system.  These last two seem like good general advice anyway.  

Posted by Paul