Caught a Cold on a Plane? Where You Sit Is the Culprit

New research sheds light on the health risks posed by sick passengers at 35 000 feet.

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You’re bound to get a few sniffles and sneezes among the 4 billion passengers who fly on commercial aircraft every year. You also don’t have to be a health professional to understand that germs have a party on flights packed with travellers sitting in confined spaces.

So what are the actual chances of getting sick? That depends on where you sit and who sits next to or near you, according to a recent study in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’.

The observations took place aboard 10 single-aisle, domestic US flights that lasted 3.5-5 hours. Using a computer model, researchers recorded the movements of 1 540 passengers and 41 cabin crew members in the economy section. One flight had 17 empty seats, 2 flights had just a few and 7 flights were completely full. Only one person coughed out of all the passengers. In addition, none of the crew members were seen coughing at all.

Half of the passengers who moved around in the aeroplane didn’t use the bathroom. Almost 38 % never left their seats. An equal percentage left their seats only once, 13 % twice and 11 % left more often than that. Using the lavatory and checking the overhead bin were the most common movements.

Each crew member had about 67 minutes of contact with passengers. The research team estimated that one sick crew member could infect nearly five passengers per flight.

The computer modelled the risk from viruses spread by droplets sprayed out in coughs and sneezes. It didn’t consider the possibility for viruses to float around in the cabin’s air.

Quoted by ‘The New York Times’, Howard Weiss, one of the authors and mathematics professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States, said: “It’s pretty clear that if you’re seated more than a meter away from an infected passenger and you’re careful with hand hygiene, you’re unlikely to get infected with the flu.”

The study found that passengers within two seats or one row of someone with a respiratory illness had an 80 % or greater possibility of getting sick than those farther away. For all other passengers, the risk of infection was under 3 %. Throughout the aeroplane, people sitting in aisle seats were more at risk.

“What we showed is that outside this perimeter there is very little probability of becoming infected on an airplane,” Vicki Stover Hertzberg, lead author and nursing professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, told the UK’s ‘The Guardian’. “You don’t have to worry about the coughing coming from the person five rows behind you.”

What advice does Hertzberg have if you’re sitting next to someone who’s feeling lousy and changing seats isn’t an option? Wash hands well, don’t touch your face because viruses can be picked up through the eyes, nose and mouth. Sneeze into your elbow and turn on your air vent. Here’s to happy and healthy travelling!

Source: CORDIS