Infections from Airplane Travel

Infections from Airplane Travel

Check out the latest contribution to our Infectious Diseases Hub, shared with us by an American neurologist. How much do you think about germs and infections when you travel?

Airplane travel puts people in a unique environment. Studies show that airplane travel can be a source of passenger infection. The infections that have been noted to be transmitted through air travel are primarily respiratory tract infections, which are easily transmitted through airborne droplets or by indirect contact with inanimate materials on the airplane. The most common infections associated with air travel include flu viruses, but more sinister infections such as tuberculosis, measles and even the epidemic illnesses SARS and Ebola have been attributed to air travel.

Why does air travel cause infection?

Air travel puts people in a situation with exposure to many other people in an enclosed environment. This allows for the introduction and contact with infections microorganisms. Most travelers would not cancel a flight due to a respiratory infection, and thus it is expected that some passengers might harbor infectious microorganisms.

Passengers from a variety of regions may have dissimilar immunity to microorganisms, and some passengers may carry and transmit infectious organisms that are endemic to one region but not another.

All traveling passengers are not in their usual environments, which inevitably prevents air travelers from accessing the means to obtaining their usual hygiene routine.

Fatigue and jet lag can diminish immune system function, making travelers more susceptible to infection if they become exposed to infectious microorganisms.

Prevention of infection 

Most air travelers do not take any extra safeguards to prevent the transmission of infection. However, some passengers are observed taking careful precautions, such as bringing their own supplies for eating and drinking, using hand sanitizer, wearing gloves, protecting personal items with covers designed to inhibit the spread of germs, as well as a variety of other unique methods.

As far as documented methods of preventing the spread of infection due to air travel, there have been a few interesting research studies. One study interestingly indicated that when passengers walk on the airplane, this seems to increase infection, as a passenger can spread infectious organisms when he or she physically moves around. Another study suggested that facemasks can substantially reduce the spread of infection on airplanes.

Very few airplane commuters opt for masks. Walking on an airplane has been generally recommended as a method of preventing blood clots. Given the lack of space on a standard commercial airplane and the usual safety recommendations, it is unlikely that passengers would decrease the already low amount of walking that typically happens on airplanes.

Do you give advice on preventing infection to traveling patients who might be at risk of infection, such as pregnancy patients, babies or immunocompromised patients? Do you personally take any precautions to prevent infections when you travel on an airplane?

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