How to avoid catching the flu – or worse – on a flight this winter

Think back to the golden age of travel. Not the 1950s, when passengers wore their fanciest outfits, and whiled away the flight with champagne and cigarettes.

No, we’re talking about travel before Covid. Remember those days, before anyone carried hand sanitiser, or knew which way round to wear a face mask?

The pandemic changed that, fast-tracking our understanding of how germs spread among humans in close proximity. Suddenly, everyone was a potential threat. 

Just two years ago, that’s how the majority of us felt, which makes a recent finding by FESS quite astounding. 

Looking at health practices during travel, the study found that, if seated next to a passenger who was sneezing and blowing their nose, 45 per cent of Australians would sit quietly and politely, hoping they don’t get sick, rather than taking any action.

Even more alarming, 15 per cent would distract themselves with loud music or movies – a method which clearly has no scientific basis.

Dr Brad McKay, Sydney-based GP and author of Fake Medicine (Hachette Australia) is concerned. 

“We’ve become much more relaxed in terms of infectious diseases, and I think it’s part of humanity’s way of coping, by forgetting that we’ve just come through a pandemic,” McKay said.

“But it’s created a weird etiquette situation. Now, when you see someone wearing a mask, you wonder what’s wrong with them.”

Wearing mask in office

It’s not long since masks were the norm, but we’ve moved on. Photo: Getty

With winter – and peak flu season – on its way, McKay warns that it’s more crucial than ever to stay vigilant.

“We’re also seeing a few changes happening around the world, with bird flu getting into cattle and starting to spread around,” he said. “It pays to be alert but not alarmed. If we relax too much, it’s at our own peril.”

Here’s how we can defend ourselves against in-flight germs that might ruin our well-deserved holiday. 

Stay current with vaccinations

“Now’s the time to get the flu vaccine, if you haven’t already had it,” said McKay, who also regularly sees patients who have lost track of their Covid jabs.

“If you haven’t had a vaccine or Covid itself – for 12 months, your immune system will have forgotten a fair bit. I definitely recommend it before a holiday. You don’t want to spend your week in Thailand confined to the hotel room.”

Meanwhile, don’t forget to check if your destination requires specific travel immunisations. 

Always pack a mask 

Almost half of us have been seated next to a person with a cold or flu when travelling, according to the FESS report. Even if it’s not a ‘serious’ illness, do you really want to catch it?

“I always travel with an N95 mask. If I had no other option than to sit next to someone who was coughing and sneezing, I’d put that on,” McKay said. “Maybe they’ll get the hint that they should do the same, but at the very least, I’m not leaving myself exposed for the whole flight.”

Wash your hands frequently

“Soap and water is always the best option, because some viruses are immune to alcohol-style antiseptics – including Norovirus, which can cause gastro,” McKay said.

“But I also understand that’s not easy to do on a plane. When that’s not possible, use a gel antiseptic.”

Sanitise airplane

How thoroughly are planes cleaned between flights? Photo: Getty

Sanitise your environment

Pre-Covid, most of us didn’t even consider the hands that had touched the in-flight entertainment screen before us.

These days, with dubiously short windows for cleaning between flights, it pays to carry a packet of antiseptic wipes. After boarding, give everything you might touch a once over, not forgetting the arm rest, tray table, seat belt, vent, window … 

Hydrate and lubricate

Planes are known for their low humidity, which can cause the natural fluids in your nose and throat to dry up.

Part of the body’s defences, these are useful for catching unwanted substances like bacteria before they get any further, and they also contain enzymes that destroy the germs.

You can help lubricate these areas by using eye drops and a saline nasal spray, such as FESS. 

“Go to the bathroom, do a few sprays, blow your nose and clear everything out,” McKay suggested. “You don’t have to be that passenger who’s sitting there, coughing and sneezing and spreading germs around them.”

And let’s not forget that on any quest to stay hydrated, drinking water and avoiding alcohol are key. 

Choose a window seat

The National Academy of Sciences in the US found that passengers who sit by the aisle come into contact with the most airborne germs, followed by those in the middle seat.

In sitting by the window, you’re less exposed, since there are fewer people brushing past during the flight, while you’re also less likely to move about and interact socially. It’s not great for your circulation, though.

Airplane window seat sanitiser

Enjoy the view. Photo: Getty

Be prepared before you go

“Don’t waste precious holiday time at an unfamiliar pharmacy,” McKay said.

“Remember to pack saline nasal sprays, lubricating eye drops, pain relief, oral rehydration solution, moisturiser, anti-nausea medication, anti-diarrhoea tablets, and fibre supplements. Having these familiar items within reach will save time and keep you feeling well.”

Stay vigilant year round

Some diseases ramp up in winter, but that’s not always the case.

“We originally thought Covid would be seasonal, but it’s turned out to be more random, depending on the latest strain, and how infectious that strain is,” McKay said.

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