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Your Airplane Ride Probably Didn't Make You Sick

Unless you're seated within the same aisle as an ill person, your airplane ride probably didn't make you sick.

Dear A Moment of Science:

Airplanes are not only cramped and uncomfortable, but I've heard they're gross germ carriers, too. Do you have any tips for avoiding germs on planes?


I Need A Vacation From My Vacation!

Our Response

Dear Listener,

You're right--airplanes certainly play a role in helping diseases spread around the world. But you might be surprised to learn that planes may actually be a lot cleaner, and less germ-ridden than many people assume.

According to research by scientists at Emory and Georgia Tech, you have to be sitting pretty close to a sick passenger to be at risk for infection. If you're more than about a yard or two away, the chances of picking up an illness from someone are pretty slim.

The researchers recorded the movement and behaviors of all passengers on ten domestic flights in the United States, and incorporated the data into a mathematical model, and then sampled airplane surfaces on those same flights.

They swabbed seat belt buckles, bathroom door handles, tray tables, and other hard surfaces in the planes. They all came back negative for eighteen of the most common respiratory viruses.

That may be because most common respiratory viruses are transmitted through large droplets that fall within about a yard of the sick passenger.

To be clear, this doesn't prove that planes are largely free of germs. Ten flights constitute a pretty small sample size. In any case, your best bet for avoiding contagion on a plane or anywhere else, is to wash your hands frequently, and keep your hands away from your face. That usually does the trick.

If you're in the mood to learn more about germs, we wrote about how you're more likely to get sick in a children's school from using the water fountain rather than the bathroom.Â

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