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Avoiding flu and other nasty viruses on a plane may be easier than you think, study finds

A study published Monday in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences suggests airline passengers may not be as prone to catching viruses in-flight as popularly assumed.
A study published Monday in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences suggests airline passengers may not be as prone to catching viruses in-flight as popularly assumed. Los Angeles Times

Everyone has heard that commercial flights are airborne germ factories festering with all manner of nasty bugs lurking in wait to infect unwary passengers.

But it turns out the popular conception may be wrong, at least when it comes to airborne viruses, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers took 10 American Airlines flights between Atlanta and the West Coast to record passenger and crew behavior in order to create a mathematical model of virus transmission. They also swabbed bathroom door handles, seat belt buckles and tray tables for 18 kinds of respiratory viruses – finding none.

Researchers found a lot of interactions and possibilities for transmission of viruses between passengers and crew – about 5,000 on a four-hour flight – but, oddly, not a lot of coughing.

“What most surprised me was that on 10 flights, eight during flu season, only one of 1,500 passengers on 10 flights was coughing,” Howard Weiss, a mathematics professor at Georgia Tech and one of the lead authors on the paper, told Popular Science.

Despite all those interactions, the mathematical model produced by researchers shows a sick person on a flight is really only likely to spread a virus-borne illness to passengers in their own row and one row in front and behind, according to the study.

“If you are seated further away than a meter from an infected passenger, you are unlikely to get infected during a flight,” Weiss told Popular Science.

Flight attendants, who interact with far more passengers in the course of their duties, have more opportunities to inadvertently share viruses and should not come to work sick, the study suggests.

To avoid getting infected with a virus on a plane, the study’s findings seem to suggest that passengers take a window seat, use the bathroom as little as possible, meticulously wash their hands and limit their interactions with the crew, NewsHub reported.

“I suspect that many people do not understand the importance of good hand hygiene,” Weiss told Popular Science.

“Behaviors, movements, and transmission of droplet-mediated respiratory diseases during transcontinental airline flights” was authored by researchers from Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology in conjunction with Boeing. Researchers cautioned against extrapolating their results to short-hop commercial flights, international flights or flights on other airlines, which may have different procedures for disinfecting cabins.

What action – apart from getting vaccinated and taking medicine – can you take to help slow the spread of illnesses like the flu?

You may have heard that going outside in the winter without a hat on will result in catching a cold, but is that really true? A doctor separates fact from fiction when it comes to what actually causes us to get sick.

The activity of flu-like illnesses was at high levels in mid-January in 24 states, including California, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

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