Every time I fly on an airplane, people all around me are coughing and sniffling. How can I avoid getting sick and ruining my vacation?
Sitting on an airplane surrounded by coughing, sniffling and sneezing neighbors is unnerving indeed. Aerosolized droplets contain the viruses that spread colds, and a number of scientific studies have documented the presence of illness-causing bacteria and viruses on surfaces of airplane cabins and restrooms. These upper respiratory infections and the gastrointestinal viruses that cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are easily transmitted from person to person. They can be inhaled or transmitted when you rub your eyes, nose or mouth after coming into contact with contaminated surfaces. Washing your hands frequently with soap and water or using hand sanitizer is the best way to avoid catching and transmitting these illnesses. Avoid shaking hands if possible. If you are particularly vigilant, wipe your tray tables, arm rests, seat console controls and overhead buttons with disinfectant towelettes, and ignore seatback magazines and pamphlets. It may attract unwanted attention, but germophobes can wear a disposable surgical mask while onboard. And in hotels, don't forget to wipe down the TV remote control.
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Traveler's diarrhea also can be inconvenient, so if you go abroad, avoid eating raw food and vegetables, only drink or brush your teeth using bottled water and ask for no ice cubes in your drinks.
If you do get sick, bring a stash of your favorite over-the-counter cold, cough and flu remedies along in a first aid kit. As a last resort, ask your doctor for "just-in-case" prescriptions for antibiotics to cover respiratory illnesses and traveler's diarrhea, which may save the day if all else fails.
— Mark Melrose, DO, is a board-certified emergency physician at Urgent Care Manhattan. E-mail him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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