Pathogens on Planes: How to Stay Healthy in Flight

Safety on Planes

Story at-a-glance

  • The most common way for you to be infected with a disease is by touching a contaminated surface, then transferring the germ to your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Washing your hands frequently is an important way to avoid getting sick from air travel
  • Your best bet though is a strong immune system, nourished by minimal processed foods and sugars, proper sleep, and stress management will keep you healthy even if you’re infected with a germ
  • For airborne pathogens, try adjusting your overhead vent so you have an air current directed away from your face, which might help to knock away infectious organisms from your personal space


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

One major US airline estimates that its aircraft fly an average of nearly six flights per day. With, let's say, an average of 137 people on each flight, that's 822 people per day that may pass through any one plane.

After a week, that exposure rises to more than 5,700 people, each with the potential to share their own possibly pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and other microbes with the aircraft seats, tray tables, toilet, arm rests, and virtually every other surface on the plane.

Considering that some of the nastiest microbes, like MRSA and E. coli O157, can last about a week and four days on surfaces, respectively,1 it's enough to make anyone want to douse themselves in hand sanitizer upon exiting the plane.

Yet, if it were really that bad, virtually everyone would get sick after flying, which, of course, isn't the case. I fly at least once a month (this month I have flown seven times, though). But I am not concerned because I strengthen my immune system with a healthy lifestyle.

Most Infectious Disease Is Transmitted by Touching a Contaminated Surface

When in an airplane's cramped quarters, one of the most common concerns is that someone sneezing has the potential to infect the whole plane, especially since about 50 percent of the cabin air is recycled. This is possible but unlikely for a couple of reasons.

For starters, according to Dr. Mark Gendreau, who specializes in aviation medicine at Lahey Medical Center in Massachusetts, airplanes have high-tech air filters that remove more than 99 percent of microbes from the air, and even then the ventilation is compartmentalized so that it only circulates to part of the cabin.2

Second, the most common way for you to be infected with a disease is by touching a contaminated surface, then transferring the germ to your eyes, nose, or mouth.

This is true whether you're in an airplane or any other public space, and is the reason why washing your hands, with plain soap and water, is so important to reduce your risk of contracting an infectious disease.

Because the water on airplanes may not be the most pure (one study by the US Environmental Protection Agency found fecal bacteria in 15 percent of the drinking water on planes it tested3), Dr. Gendreau recommends taking the extra step of sanitizing your hands with a waterless hand sanitizer after washing them. If you opt for this step, be sure to use a toxin-free, natural brand.

One trick I use in an airport is to only use restrooms that don't have doors. This is most of the ones in newer airport terminals. Oddly, if you go into the expensive and private airport lounges you have to touch the doors.

So I nearly always use the main airport restrooms and avoid touching bathroom doors. I also tend to refrain from touching the handrails on escalators and will always seek to walk up or down them unless it is not possible.

Immune System to the Rescue: How to Avoid Getting Sick Even if You're Within the 'Transmission Zone'

In research looking into how airborne diseases travel on planes, studies have uncovered different size "transmission zones" for different pathogens. For instance, the transmission zone for tuberculosis appears to be sitting within two rows of the infected person on a flight that's eight hours or longer. For SARS, the transmission zone is larger, about three to seven rows surrounding an infected person.4

If you're sitting within the transmission zone and a person near you sneezes, there's a chance you could be infected with an airborne pathogen, but this is where your immune system comes in.

As you may be aware, just because you're exposed to, or even infected with, a germ doesn't mean it will make you sick. In one study, when 17 people were infected with a flu virus, only half of them got sick.5

The researchers found changes in blood took place 36 hours before flu symptoms showed up, and everyone had an immune response, regardless of whether or not they felt sick. But the immune responses were quite different …

In symptomatic participants, the immune response included antiviral and inflammatory responses that may be related to virus-induced oxidative stress. But in the non-symptomatic participants, these responses were tightly regulated. The asymptomatic group also had elevated expression of genes that function in antioxidant responses and cell-mediated responses. Researchers noted:

"Exposure to influenza viruses is necessary, but not sufficient, for healthy human hosts to develop symptomatic illness. The host response [emphasis added] is an important determinant of disease progression."

In other words, a strong immune system will always be your best defense against any pathogenic bacteria you come across anywhere, and will serve you well if you nourish it with the proper tools. You can support your immune system by using the following tips (and see my full list below):

  • Getting a good night's sleep and minimizing stress in your life
  • Exercising regularly and effectively
  • Getting enough sun exposure in order to optimize your vitamin D levels.
  • Avoiding sugar and grains, and instead eating plenty of whole foods as described in my nutrition plan
  • Eating fermented vegetables regularly, or taking a high-quality probiotic (good bacteria) supplement

More Tricks for Minimizing Your Risk of Getting Sick on a Plane

Aside from maintaining a healthy immune system, an effective strategy when traveling on a plane, as mentioned, is to frequently wash your hands. It is also important to not touch your mouth, nose, or eyes after touching common public surfaces in airplanes like door handles, seat-back trays, and water faucets or toilet handles.

Cold and flu viruses can last up to 72 hours on plastic surfaces and the nasty norovirus can survive for two to four weeks – so chances are that you're very likely to touch a surface with some germs on it while you're in a confined space with many other people, like on an airplane (or in public places general).

While some airlines like American Airlines and Southwest tout their thorough deep-cleaning requirements for their fleet of planes, including scrubbing and de-sanitizing nooks and crannies every 30 days, you can still bet that many surfaces like arm rests, seat-back tables, magazines, and lavatory toilets receive at best minimal cleanings after most flights.

As for airborne pathogens, Dr. Gendreau has a quick tip using your overhead vent that can help:6 "'Set your ventilation at low or medium,' he says.

'Then position it so you can draw an imaginary line of current right in front of your head. I put my hands on my lap so I can feel the current — so I know it's properly positioned.' Then if something infectious is floating in your personal space, he says, that air from the vent will create enough current to knock it away."

There are a myriad of other options available, depending on how much you're willing to spend. The New York Times reported on several such items designed to keep you from getting sick on a plane.7 These may help, but ultimately your best "weapons" are a healthy immune system and frequent hand washing.

  • Organic antiseptic sprays
  • Individual air purifiers that hang around your neck
  • Slip covers that fit over airplane seats
  • Disposable face masks
  • Ultraviolet light "scanners" that kill germs

My Top Tips for Healthy Air Travel

It's important to get back to the basics so you can avoid infections anywhere, not just while travelling. The following general guidelines will help you optimize your health and immune function, and by doing so, minimize your risk of becoming ill while traveling. I actually recommend you follow these tips year-round, regardless of your travel plans, because you will inevitably be exposed to bacteria and viruses in your daily life.

Consume a diet that's rich in raw whole foods; avoid junk foods, processed foods, sugar, and grains, which all can tax your immune system.
Get plenty of high-quality sleep. Strive for 8 hours, which will typically mean 8-9 hours in bed after you factor in time to sleep and times you wake up.
Exercise regularly and effectively; when on a long flight, walk around frequently to prevent the risk of pulmonary embolism.
Get adequate sunlight exposure to optimize your vitamin D level; if this is not possible, use a safe tanning bed or take an oral vitamin D supplement.
Rehydrate with water, not soda, while traveling; most airlines offer bottled or canned sparkling water. Make sure you drink water frequently while you are flying.
Take a high-quality probiotic (good bacteria) and eat plenty of fermented foods like kefir and natto, which are natural sources of probiotics. A probiotic supplement can help prevent the constipation that many people get while traveling, as well as, be used to treat traveler's diarrhea.
Do a quick cleanup of your hotel room as soon as you check in. Simple precautions like wiping down faucets, handles, and countertops, washing glasses, and removing the bedspread can reduce your risk of exposure to pathogens.
Consider using an Earthing/grounding pad while flying to help correct the bioelectrical disruption you experience when you are not in contact with the earth's surface. One trick that I have been using for a few years after a tip from Dr. Stephen Sinatra is to remove one of my shoes when flying and put my foot on the metal support frame on the seat in front of me. Doing this will ground you to the airplane frame and help mitigate damage from radiation at 35,000 feet.
If you suffer from motion sickness, pack some fresh raw gingerroot. Ginger is a wonderful natural remedy for nausea, as well as being a remedy for a number of other health problems.
Address your stress; minimize it as much as possible. My favorite stress-busting technique is EFT, which is like acupuncture without the needles.


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