A colleague had been on an airplane and he felt a cold coming on. With watery eyes and a red nose, he asked, “Have you written about how to stay healthy on flights?”
It seems like it’s time to do so again, especially because flu season is on the runway.
Right now Australia’s flu season is dominated by the H3N2 strain, which emerged for the first time in the 1968 “Hong Kong flu” pandemic and tends to cause more hospitalization and deaths than other strains.
H3N2 may also dominate in the United States this year, says Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, director of the influenza division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but it is too early to be sure.
The number of cases of flu in this country is still quite low. But as the weather cools, it is expected to ramp up.
Getting sick after a flight is a common complaint for a few reasons. Fliers are squeezed together. Planes are filled with germ-ridden surfaces and the circulating air at 30,000 feet has low humidity. Also, jet lag can mess with a person’s immune system.
How to fight those forces?
• Get your flu shot soon. Australia had an unusually early and fairly severe season. Since that may foretell a serious outbreak in the United States, public health experts now are urging Americans to get their shots as soon as possible.
“It’s too early to tell for sure, because sometimes Australia is predictive and sometimes it’s not,” says Jernigan. “But the best move is to get the vaccine right now.”
• Wash your hands. “Handwashing is the single most important infection control measure,” according to the CDC. Wash with soap and water for at least 20 seconds _ and touch nothing in the lavatory afterward without the shield of a paper towel. Hand rubs with at least 60% alcohol will do the trick if soap and water are unavailable. Avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes with unwashed hands.
• Beware the germiest places on planes. That includes tray tables and seat-back pockets, which could have held someone’s used tissues on the previous flight. I bring disinfectant wipes for the hard surfaces on my seat. When fellow passengers look at me like I’m nuts, I invite them to take a wipe. They almost always do.
• Drink water during the flight. Studies have shown that is an effective way to combat the generally lower humidity of airplane air. It also helps the immune system run smoothly. Nasal saline mists are another tool. They keep the nose moist so it can effectively play its role as a filter for our airways.
• Time is everything. To combat jet lag and the havoc it can wreak on immune systems, make incremental adjustments before the flight, sleep on the plane if you can, spend time in the sun upon arrival and drink lots of water before, during and after the flight.
— Kerri Westenberg, Minneapolis Star Tribune