What’s worse than anticipating a European vacation for months only to land in Rome, unable to taste your pasta and pizza thanks to a bug you caught on the flight? Your risk of getting an infection increases while traveling at 30,000 feet because of the airplane’s low humidity and high levels of germs. “Low humidity dries out your nose and mouth, making you more susceptible to catching a virus,” says Mark Gendreau, M.D., vice chairman of emergency medicine and an aviation health expert at the Tufts University School of Medicine’s Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass.
That means you’ll have a tough time fending off the bacteria lurking all over the plane’s cabin. Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, recently swabbed seat-back trays and discovered influenza, staphylococcus (MRSA, aka staph infection) and norovirus. And on a trip to the bathroom, you’ll encounter even more bacteria, says Gerba, who detected more E.coli in airplane restrooms than in any other public bathrooms he studied—including airports, restaurants and offices. But flying in a germ factory doesn’t mean you’ll get sick. Here’s what to do before your trip and while you’re stuck in 28E between the hacking cougher and the toddler with a runny nose.
1. Build up your resistance One of the most important things you can do to remain healthy while traveling is to get plenty of sleep the week—and especially the night—before your flight, says Sezelle Gereau Haddon, M.D., an integrative ear, nose and throat specialist at the Continuum Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Taking immune-strengthening supplements such as elderberry extract or North American ginseng several days before traveling may lessen your increased risk of upper-respiratory infections. “Close to 99 percent of upper-respiratory infections are caught from touching public surfaces contaminated by coughers and nose-wipers,” Gendreau says. Mary Saunders, L.Ac., an acupuncturist in Boulder, Colo., recommends 2,000 to 4,000 IUs of vitamin D3 daily.
2. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate It’s essential to drink plenty of water, which is not as easy now that you can’t bring liquids through airport security. Because the plane’s low humidity dries out your nose, mouth, throat and eyes, “the more moist you keep those barriers to infection, the better you can expel pathogens,” Haddon says. Hollywood dietitian Ashley Koff, R.D., says that when it comes to H2O, aim to drink half of your body weight in ounces of water the day before you travel, as well as the day of and after. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, drink 75 ounces. Another hydration helper is potassium, which enables your cells to absorb water. Before your trip, drink electrolyte-loaded coconut water, which packs more potassium than a banana.