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How to avoid getting sick on a plane, according to science

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Susan Devaney
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Choosing the right seat may be the best way to not get sick on your next flight, according to a new study. 

In the next few weeks many of us will be packing and preparing for our summer holidays – and whether you’re jetting off to the sunny shores of Spain or about to trek through the Himalayas, the last thing you want to happen is to arrive at your destination feeling less than fabulous after a flight.

We’ve heard it all – from the lack of circulated air in cabins, to the germs and microbes surrounding us, flying has long been thought to raise your risk of getting sick.

But thankfully, a new study has revealed a trick or two for avoiding illness on a plane.

Firstly, if possible, pick a window seat. Secondly, try to stay put for the duration of the flight. By doing both, you’ll minimise your chances of coming in contact with a sick passenger, which increases your chances of falling ill. If you opt for an aisle seat then you’re more likely to encounter potentially ill passengers (or crew members) and possibly up your chances of infection.

It all seems rather obvious, right? But the study is actually the first of its kind to delve into how diseases spread on planes.

Travelling on 10 domestic flights, where they monitored travellers and crew members, researchers collected data from 1,540 passengers and 41 crew members. As it turns out, people sitting in aisle seats had contact with 64 other people on average, while those in the middle seat had 58 and the window seat only had 12. 

The last thing you want to happen is to arrive in your destination feeling less than fabulous after a flight.

After setting up flight simulations, the researchers closely analysed how one sick person could potentially infect others on the same plane throughout the duration of the flight, finding that one person could potentially make 11 others ill. If you’re seated next to a sick passenger (who has the flu or cold) then the two others in their row, three passengers in the rows in front and behind, and three passengers seated in the rows across the aisle are most likely to get sick. Everyone else on the plane also has a small chance of catching what they have. People seated next to a window have the lowest overall risk.

If you fly with the flu then there are a few precautions you can take to decrease the chance of making the person next to you ill, too.

“Sneeze into your elbow, use good hand hygiene, and turn on your air vent. That will send the droplets straight to the floor,” says Vicki Stover Hertzberg, lead author of the study.

While the study found that a sick passenger is likely to infect, at most, two fellow travellers, an ill crew member could infect four or five people. However, a sick crew member is more likely to take medication to ease their symptoms.

Time to make sure you’ve booked a window seat on your next flight?

Images: Unsplash 

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Susan Devaney

Susan Devaney is a digital journalist for Stylist.co.uk, writing about fashion, beauty, travel, feminism, and everything else in-between.

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