MILE-HIGH HEALTH RISKS

6 Places Germs Breed in a Plane

Flu season is in full swing, so it's more important than ever to protect yourself against illness. We dug deep to identify the major germ zones on planes (and tips to avoid them). No, you're not likely to contract meningitis, but better safe than sorry, right?

GERM ZONE: Airplane Pillow and Blankets
FOR: Germs like Aspergillus niger that cause pneumonia and infections
Talk about sleeping with the enemy. You're snuggling with a blanket and pillow that have likely been used by many drowsy, drooling passengers before you. Unless visibly soiled, pillows and blankets are often reissued because of the frequency of flights. A 2007 investigation by The Wall Street Journal revealed that airlines cleaned their blankets every five to 30 days. And don't assume your blanket is new just because it's wrapped in plastic. The Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees made a big stink in 2000 when it accused Royal Airline Laundry—which supplies pillows and blankets to clients like American, United, and US Airways—of repackaging pillows and blankets without cleaning them properly. Its research found blankets with traces of Pseudomonas paucimobilis, known for causing lung and eye infections, and pillowcases with Aspergillus niger, which can lead to pneumonia and gastrointestinal bleeding. In the decade since, airlines like Southwest and Alaska Airlines have removed pillows and blankets completely, while JetBlue, US Airways, and American now charge for them.
TIP: There have been no documented reports linking airlines to these infections. But if you're worried about staying warm—and want to avoid potential germs and airline fees—wear layers and thick socks, and consider bringing Grabber Warmers, small disposable hand and foot warmers. A travel pillow and compact blanket will help you sleep in comfort.

GERM ZONE: Airplane Lavatory
FOR: A smorgasbord of threats like E. coli or fecal bacteria
After a mid-flight nap, you wake up to nature's call and must face the airplane's biggest germ zone: the lavatory. With hundreds of people using the commode daily, the small boxy space is a natural haven for all kinds of germs and viruses, especially on the door handle (do you really think every passenger washes his or her hands?). And that thunderous volcanic toilet flush doesn't exactly help the situation, spraying water and releasing potential germs into the air every which way. The CDC cited the lavatory as a major danger area for the spread of disease during the H1N1 flu and SARS epidemics.
TIP: Use a paper towel to close the toilet lid before flushing—and then leave without washing your hands. Remember that cloudy tank water we described above? The sink water comes from the same source. You'll come away cleaner if you skip the sink and reach for hand sanitizer instead.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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