Got the sniffles after a flight? Guess what, it’s not the cabin air…

Cabin air
4 min read

Considering wearing a mask next time you travel? You wouldn’t be the first one. Many travellers believe the chances of getting a cold or any kind of illness for that matter is far more likely if you recently travelled by plane.

There is a common belief that the reason for this, is the circulating cabin air onboard an aircraft. That’s not the case, however, according to the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), which has the stats to prove it.

According to IATA, the risk of getting sick from flying is similar to that of other high-density activities like going to the movies or taking the train. IATA claims that in-cabin HEPA filters can get rid of 99.9995% of germs and microbes in the air. Plus, cabin air is only half recirculated air. The other half is fresh air pumped in from the outside.

So then, why is it then that you are more likely to catch a case of sniffles on an airplane? The Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA), offers this explanation:

jet lag sick

Sorry to say it’s not the flight, it is you…

This is where convenience and health clash. It is all good and great that a plane trip can take you half way around the world in a matter of hours, but your body may not agree.

While your flight may be over in a matter of hours, your body often requires some additional R&R time to adapt to new environments and this is where we come to greet jet lag.

Desynchronosis, a rather fancy term for jetlag, is one of the less glamourous effects of long-haul travel, and wreaks havoc on your body clock, leaving you lethargic, irritable and very often with a headache and insomnia and of course leaves you with a weakened immune system, making you more susceptible in catching common cold and flu viruses. Read more here

Flight attendant

Or maybe it’s not you…

Chances are, that much like family, you will not be able to choose your fellow air travellers.

A recent study conducted by researchers from Emory University found that if you are seated less than one row away from a coughing or sneezing person all bets are off. The research showed that sick air travellers’ 11 closest neighbours have up to 80% more change of catching an infection.

The study also showed that a sick cabin crew member was likely to infect an average of 4.6 passengers per flight, and that those seated in the middle and aisle seats, due to their proximity to crew, were at the greatest risk.


You can blame the plane

Much like other public spaces and modes of transport, airplanes are frequented by people getting on and off and moving around, which of course means that germs are lurking all-around.

There are a handful of especially dirty spots, according to research and advisories from travel physicians, they include:

Tray tables: a 2015 study by TravelMath that tested samples from hard surfaces in planes found that tray table surfaces had more than eight times the amount of bacteria per square inch than the restroom flush buttons.

Air vents, seatbelt buckles and backseat pockets: Three plane features with frequent usage also make the list. Keep a bottle of hand sanitiser handy.

Restrooms: While airplane bathrooms are regularly cleaned, overnight and between long flights, with roughly 50 people to a bathroom, it is still an easy way to pick up an infection.

Aisle seats: Prefer the aisle seat? Perhaps you should reconsider. The tops of aisle seats are likely harbouring germs from every person who walks by them and holds on for support… and consider many of those people have just come from the bathroom.


Just blame the universe…

While this may sound quite contrary, the sun can actually also be responsible for your sudden cold or flu.

This is especially true after a long-haul flight. To explain it in simple terms your cold or flu can be directly caused by the exposure to UV rays and cosmic radiation (radiation from the sun and other stars.)

According to an article by Condenast Traveller, you can in fact blame the universe because the earth’s protective shield is weaker above 30,000 feet, and exposure is even higher for flights over the North Pole and during solar flares. The actual per-person dose can vary, but according to research from NASA, a typical Chicago-Beijing flight over the pole would deliver the equivalent of two chest X-rays.