Germaphobes beware: Airplanes Can Make You Sick

Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy Seat

People who know me tend to laugh and strangers raise their eyebrows when I get out my alcohol swabs or Lysol Wipes on an airplane.  But a new study conducted by Auburn University and Wake Forest University researchers shows that I’m not insane.  Airplanes Can Make You Sick. 

When discussing with one friend who flies occasionally (5 times a year) she suggested that I was extreme and that perhaps while flying you just shouldn’t touch your face with your hands and then, after deplaning, sanitize your hands.  Try not touching your face on a 14 hour flight!  The more frequently I flew, the more often I got sick.  

At some point I started carrying alcohol swabs and/or Lysol wipes with me.  I would wipe down the armrest, the tray table and the TV/entertainment system controls. It seemed to me that when I was consistent about cleaning, I got sick way less.  Well, it turns out that may have been true! 

Researchers released results showing that some of the deadliest germs can live for up to a week on airplane. A week! 

In order to conduct the research Delta Airlines provided samples of six different materials commonly used on planes: aplastic tray table, a metal toilet flush, a seat back pocket, a plastic window shade, a rubber armrest, and a leather seat.

They applied two types of bacteria, E. coli and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) to the surfaces, mimicked the conditions inside an airline cabin (20 percent humidity, 75-degree temperature), and waited, a week. 

MRSA causes nasty wounds and soft-tissue infections and E.Coli can lead to diarrhea and other more dangerous illnesses. 

The MRSA survived for up to 7 days on the the surfaces that surround your plane seat. The more porous the surface, the longer the bacteria lived. MRSA lasted for 7 days on the cloth seat pocket, 6 days on rubber armrest, 5 days on plastic tray tables and window shades and 4 on metal toilet flush handle. 

The E. coli bacteria were a little less persistent, surviving for 4 days on the armrest, 3 days on the tray table and window shade, and 2 days on the toilet flusher. 

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the study?  Researchers found that while the bacteria didn’t survive as long on plastic surfaces, those surfaces provided a more efficient mode of transportation. In other words, MRSA and E. coli transfers easily from the armrest to your hands. 

So, what can you do? Experts say that you should sanitize your surroundings and your hands regularly.  You need to both disinfect and sanitize.  There’s no one product that can protect you from everything, but there are many products that are very effective against a variety of bacteria. 

I typically don’t clean the toilet flusher handle, but I use paper towel to touch it and the bathroom door handle.  In my hotel rooms, on the other hand, I clean the toilet flusher handle, the light switches and phones.

It might be a bit extreme, but why take the chance when you don’t have to?  

The research for the study was conducted in Auburn University‘s and Wake Forest’s department of Biological Sciences with funding provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) through the Airliner Cabin Environmental Research Center (ACER).

What are the researchers studying now? Tuberculosis; they’re currently studying airline transmissibility of these bacteria and several other serious pathogens. Frequent fliers, stay tuned….Airplanes Can Make You Sick or so it seems! 

Do you clean the armrests, tray tables or other spaces onboard? 

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