Catch Flights, Not Colds: 5 Ways to Avoid Getting Sick After Flying

Many travelers would swear that they get sick after every trip or vacation. They wonder if it was the food, the water, the piña coladas—or, like me, the airplane ride. While I don’t think you can count out the piña coladas (or that burrito you bought on the street), it turns out you could be right about getting sick after flying.


Studies vary, but most show that airline carriers are formidable carriers of the common cold. The Wall Street Journal cited a study that found an increased risk of catching the cold by as high as 20 percent, while another study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research found that colds may be 113 times more likely to be transmitted on a plane than during normal daily life on the ground.

1. Stay hydrated. It turns out that drinking plenty of water will not only counter the overall dehydrating effects of air travel, which can lead to headaches, stomach problems, cramps, fatigue, and more, but can actually fortify your preemptive natural immune mechanisms to function considerably better. Of course, this is the case in normal daily life—when exercising, during prolonged sun exposure, etc. However, in an airplane, where your nose and throat are on the front lines of the war with exceedingly dry air, these are the first places to suffer.

2. Keep your hands clean. Your hands are the most consistent point of first contact with cold, flu, and other germs on planes and elsewhere. It is a direct line from armrest/seatback to fingers to fork to mouth to full-blown fever a few days later. Scientists report that the viruses that cause colds and flu can survive for hours on your skin or on solid objects and surfaces. According to Travelmath, the dirtiest surfaces on airplanes include tray tables, overhead air vents, lavatory flush buttons, and seatbelt buckles.

Fortunately, the simple act of wiping your hands with an antibacterial wipe is a formidable rampart against this transfer of harmful microorganisms. If possible, wipe your hands before any in-flight meals, and after your flight as well.

3. Don’t forget your dental hygiene. Just as keeping your hands clean can prevent transmission of germs, using a germ-killing mouthwash in-flight may add another layer of protection while simultaneously helping to keep your throat moist. Just make sure your mouthwash bottle is three ounces or smaller to comply with the latest carry-on rules for liquids and gels.

4. Take your vitamins. The rapid response effect of vitamins is unproven, but many travelers swear by them. Charles Westover, a retired VP of fleet management for a major shipping company, starts taking vitamins two days before flying. “I have no idea if it helps at all, but of the hundreds or thousands of flights I have taken, I rarely get colds,” he said. “I just take a standard multivitamin, and it has never let me down.” The NIH concurs, sort of, stating that no conclusive data has shown that large doses of vitamin C will prevent colds, although it may reduce the severity or duration of symptoms.

5. Prevent airborne germs. The NIH cites airborne germs as one of the top two sources of cold virus infection; some travelers have taken to wearing face masks either to prevent infection, or when they themselves are already infected. Personally, I wouldn’t last more than a half-hour or so behind a hot mask, but this may be an effective way for some travelers to prevent getting sick after flying.

If you’re not up for wearing a mask, avoiding germs might be as easy as choosing the window seat. One study found that people sitting on the aisle are more likely to contract norovirus, according to TIME.

Finally, no matter where you’re sitting, you can use your overhead air vent to steer germs away from your face. Aviation medicine specialist Dr. Mark Gendreau told NPR that to blow germs away from your mouth and nose, you should angle the flow of air so you can feel it on your hands when they’re in your lap. You should also wipe down the air vent with an antibacterial wipe.

douglas schwartz