Germs on a Plane: Next Time You Travel, Pack Some Wet Wipes

Think you can guess where the germiest places are on an airplane? Think again. Plus, an expert weighs in on which germs you actually need to be worried about.

An airplane can quickly become your second home. Depending on the length of your flight, you could easily do a day's worth of activities — from catching some Zzzs against the window to eating off the pull-down tray table to using the tiny bathrooms.

For all the people who are in and out of a single plane all day, you'd think there would be a tight disinfection schedule to avoid transferring germs and bacteria; unfortunately that doesn't seem to be the case.

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Online travel site and calculator Travelmath recruited a microbiologist to collect 26 swab samples of bacteria from five airports and four flights. The results were less than comforting: Despite their looks, airplanes and airports aren't as clean as you thought, and the dirtiest places are the most difficult to avoid.

The winners of the Most-Likely-to-Be-Germy award? The lavatory flush button, tray table, seatbelt buckle and overhead air vent were the worst offenders on the plane, while the bathroom stall locks and drinking fountain buttons were the dirtiest in the airport.

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How dirty, you ask? Well 2,155 colony-forming units (CFU) per square inch were found on the tray table you eat off of, which, when compared to the 27 CFU on your cell phone and 172 CFU on your home toilet seats, seems pretty unappetizing.

There is a silver lining, however: The study notes that E. coli and other fecal coliforms, which can be very infectious, were not present on any of the 26 samples from airports and flights.

So although the CFU counts aren't great, do you really need to be concerned about the germs in planes and airports? Yes, but more so the airborne kind, says Johanna Paola Contreras, MD, MSc, FACC, assistant professor of cardiology at The Zena and Michael A. Wiener Cardiovascular Institute at Mount Sinai.

"You're in a confined environment with other people. No one who's sick should travel, and I think airlines have almost been supporting that, which is great," Dr. Contreras says.

There are some simple — if not fairly obvious — ways to protect yourself from harmful germs while traveling:

  • Wash your hands frequently, and do it correctly. In a 2011 study, researchers found that only 5 percent of people wash their hands properly after using the restroom, which means using soap and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds.
  • Carry alcohol-based hand sanitizer, but only use it if you don't have any other options. Soap and water is more effective in reducing the number of microbes on your hands, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Clean surfaces you'll be using, such as your tray table, air vent and window blind, using disinfecting wipes containing quaternary ammonium compounds (QUATS). This reduces the chance of a virus spreading by 80 to 99 percent, says the American Society of Microbiology.
  • Make sure you've had the proper shots and vaccinations if you're traveling out of the country. Visit the CDC's Traveler's Health page to find out which vaccines are necessary for your destination.
  • Change your clothes after reaching your destination, says Contreras. "Don't wear the same clothes you traveled in for the rest of the day. Wash them as soon as you can."
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