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Cabin Fever

Fighting off the flying bug

Entrepreneur magazine, April 1999

Does flying make you sick? Air carriers are worried it might, and with good reason: Airline passengers grouped closely together breathe the same dry, recycled cabin air when they travel.

Medical experts say the odds of catching an airborne virus on a flight are significantly higher than they are elsewhere. "There's an increased risk of infection in an aircraft cabin because the air is confined," says Dr. Peter J. Lambrou, director of the Center for Aviation Medicine and Safety at the Medical Center in Pittsburgh.

So what can you do to keep from getting sick?

  • Stay hydrated. Dry cabin air makes you more vulnerable to infection. Drink lots of water, and keep your nose hydrated with saline nasal spray or petroleum jelly.
  • Avoid infected passengers. If you're sitting next to someone who appears to be ill, ask to be moved. The closer you are to the source of a potential infection, the greater the chances are that you'll get sick.
  • Don't drink -- alcohol, that is. Although alcoholic beverages are often free in first and business classes (sometimes making it hard to refuse), experts caution that alcohol dehydrates you and can make you more susceptible to illness. Order juice or soda instead.
  • Wash up. Germ expert Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, Tucson, recently took random bacterial samples from hard surfaces inside an aircraft cabin and found that the bathroom door handles, toilet seat and sink were contaminated with E. coli bacteria. His advice? Always wash your hands after visiting the bathroom on the plane.

Christopher Elliot is Entrepreneur magazine's monthly "Travel" columnist.