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Germs on airplanes

By Anne Madden, PhD research microbiologist who conducts investigations on the microorganisms that live in our environment and is a contributing author for SterilStay.

The estimates vary, but according to researchers, Americans will lose $40 billion in the next year due to non-flu respiratory diseases (colds). This loss comes from direct health costs, lost hours and days of work due to sickness, and the lost work from being a care-taker to a sick loved one. The cost estimates to employers are much greater than $40 billion if we include any of the other viruses and bacteria that we can pick up when during travel: the flu, various stomach bugs, ear, eye, throat, and nose infections, and even MRSA—the bacterium which has gained infamy for being incredibly difficult to fight with current antibiotics. All of these contribute to the $225 billion employers will lose this year due to employee absenteeism.

Why does traveling put us at a higher risk for these infections?

Many of the germs that make us sick come from other people. Those very people that are battling off a cold are helping churn out more and more of the infective microorganisms that are searching for new hosts. Each tiny speck of saliva that escapes from a cough or a sneeze, each shed cell of skin from a finger is coated in those infective microorganisms. Some of these microorganisms are floating through the air in planes, but many are sitting in the microscopic droplets of spit that were left behind by the last person to sit in that seat, or by the last person to walk down the aisle and cough. Once the microorganisms are on these locations: be it carpet, armrest, seat buckle, or magazine flap, they can survive outside the body for hours and sometimes even days… waiting for someone new to touch them and give them a new home.

All it takes is turning off a faucet, or touching an armrest for these microbes to cling to your finger tip. Recent research has shown that 22% of rhinovirus (the common cold) particles can be transferred to fingertips from a doorknob, while 40% of bacterial cells can be transferred from faucets. Hands are not a great home for these disease-causing microorganisms, which instead prefer entry to the body through the eyes, the nose, the mouth, or an open wound. But all it takes is a scratch of the nose, fingers rubbing tired eyes, a brief touch of your lips and the microorganisms you picked up from an armrest have now gained access to your body.

When we travel, we are exposed to many more people who could be fighting off an infection, and we are also exposed to more surfaces that might be carrying their germs.

So what can you do?

No matter how clean a public location is kept, it only takes one sneeze or touch from a sick seatmate to coat your armrest with disease-causing microorganisms. So what can you do other than buy your own private jet and sterilize it before each trip? The best thing you can do is take care of your own immune system; the system that works hard daily to protect you from all sort of potential diseases. You can do this by staying healthy: getting lots of sleep, eating well, and exercising. Besides that you can reduce your risk of contact with these microorganisms. You can do this by creating barriers between you and the surface with the microorganisms so that they can’t travel into your body. You can also reduce the potentially disease-causing microorganisms in your environment with compounds that kill them or stop their growth (such as disinfectants). These include chemicals that harm microorganisms, while keeping our own tissue healthy. Finally, you can practice good hand washing hygiene, all the while remembering to decrease the time you spend touching your face.

By doing your best to stay healthy, you will be able to spend more time sharing in the joys of travel, and less time sharing in the pains of disease.

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