The Terrifying Diseases You Could Contract Just By Stepping Onto an Airplane

Airplanes, like most forms of public transportation, tightly pack together a ton of potentially disease-ridden people. Germ accumulation seems to be inevitable. However, there is a multitude of diseases that hide among the seats and aisles of your flight and hop between passengers. These are the scary ones you could contract just from stepping onto the plane, including one terrifying superbug that can survive on planes for up to seven days (page 10).

1. E. coli

Occupied bathroom sign

You don’t even want to know what kind of germs are in there. | frontpoint/iStock/Getty Images

The Auburn University study found E. coli bacteria to be prevalent, albeit less persistent than the MRSA, on airplanes as well. These bacteria were able to survive for four days on armrests, three days on tray tables, and two days on toilet flushers. CNN notably marked the airplane bathroom as a “smorgasbord of threats” like E.coli.

Kiril Vaglenov, a researcher on the study, found that the more porous the surface, the longer the bacteria survived and the lower their ability to infect. This meant that while the bacteria will live longer in a cloth seat pocket, the bathroom toilet’s flush button is more likely to transmit the E. coli microbes.

Next: The deadly disease that you shouldn’t be flying with.

2. Tuberculosis

3D illustration of Lungs

The risk of contracting TB on an airplane is low. | iStock.com/yodiyim

The CDC reports that while the risk of catching TB onboard an aircraft is low, people with active TB shouldn’t travel by commercial air.

It’s important to note that according to the World Health Organization’s 2008 guidelines for TB prevention, “no cases of TB disease have so far been reported among those known to have been infected with M. tuberculosis during air travel.”

Next: Watch out for the sneezing passenger next to you.

3. Meningitis

Women sitting on an airplane

You can contract meningitis if you are close to an infected person. | iStock/Getty Images

In 2000, an investigation of New York firm Royal Airline Laundry, which provides linen to several airlines, detected a bacteria that caused infections like meningitis on blankets. The report was highly debated since it was estimated that Royal handled 85% of airline blanket cleaning in North America.

While rare, cases have been reported; in 2007, a teenager fell critically ill on an AirTran Airways flight. The airline notified the CDC, whose spokesman said meningitis isn’t a serious public health risk on flights. Meningitis can be contracted by direct close contact with discharges from the nose or throat of an infected person, but not through casual contact or breathing the same air.

Next: You could get infected if someone flies with this rash.

4. Measles

Toddler boy sleeping on father's laps while traveling in airplane

A small child may be the culprit of spreading measles. | Yaoinlove/iStock/Getty Images

Measles is a viral illness that can be transmitted by direct contact with someone who has the disease, and most cases in the U.S. are imported from other countries. The CDC considers infected travelers contagious on any flight if they traveled four days prior or following the rash’s onset.

Passengers who flew to Melbourne on Garuda Indonesia Flight GA 716 were warned to be on high alert for measles after an unvaccinated toddler traveled with the disease. Victoria’s deputy chief health officer Brett Sutton urged anyone with symptoms to immediately notify a medical professional.

Next: This puzzling disease made headlines.

5. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

Next: Think about where your airplane meal is coming from.

6. Gastrointestinal illness

child eating in the airplane

Maybe pass on the in-flight meal. | Vsurkov/iStock/Getty Images

As tempting as the provided in-flight meal is, you may be better off avoiding it. According to CNN, your airplane meal is a key germ zone for listeria, a microbe that’s known to cause gastrointestinal illness. In 2009, these meals made headlines when the FDA inspected the world’s largest airplane caterer. They found the kitchen roach-infested and the employees’ hands bare.

The catering company passed their follow-up inspection. However, if you’re concerned about potential stomach bugs, you can play it safe by skipping the in-flight meal and asking for an extra bag of pretzels.

Next: BYOB (Bring Your Own Blanket) on your next flight.

7. Pneumonia

airplane bathroom

Bring your own blanket instead. | KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Thin airplane blankets rarely keep you warm during a frigid flight. Even worse, they’re a breeding ground for the germs that cause pneumonia. Just because it’s wrapped in plastic, doesn’t mean your blanket is new; a 2007 Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that airlines at the time only cleaned their blankets every five to 30 days.

It’s also very risky for people infected with pneumonia to fly while harboring the disease. If you’re sick, postpone your flight for your health as well as the other passengers’. If you’re concerned, bring your own travel blanket and pillow — chances are they’re comfier than the ones provided in-flight, anyways.

Next: Here’s why you should invest in compression socks.

8. Blood clots

young businessman with luggage in trouble

Being seated for a long period of time can lead to blood clots. | iStock.com/DragonImages

People traveling for extended periods of times may be at increased risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), the clinical name of blood clots. It’s most common in your lower extremities, like your feet, which is why many frequent fliers purchase compression socks. They help increase circulation and reduce the risk of swelling or DVT and clotting on a long flight where you have limited mobility.

In rare cases, DVT becomes fatal when the clot travels to your lungs or heart. This was the case for Emma Christofferson, 28, who died from a pulmonary embolism after a 20-hour flight from Australia to London.

Next: Be sure to get your flu shot.

9. Influenza

Women reading on airplane

It’s more likely you’ll be seated next to someone with influenza during flu season. | iStock.com

Sitting in close proximity for long periods of time to people with flu symptoms make you highly susceptible to the disease. Cold and flu viruses can survive for hours on fabric and tissues, and for days on plastic and metal surfaces.

“During the influenza season, there is a reasonably high probability that one or more persons harboring the influenza virus will be on board,” Dr. Harriet Burge, author of Air Quality in Airplane Cabins and Similar Enclosed Spaces, Volume 4, wrote.

Next: This superbug can survive for up to a week on a plane.

10. MRSA

Scientist analyzing dish with virus and bacteria cells

MRSA can survive for up to seven days on surfaces. | iStock.com/solarseven

Auburn University’s Department of Biological Services found the superbug Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) among the concerning, deadly diseases that thrive on airplanes. According to the study, MRSA survived for up to seven days on the surfaces around your seat. In 2007, University of Arizona researcher Jonathan Sexton tested tray tables from three major airlines and found that 60% tested positive for the bacteria.

By comparison, MRSA lasted for around seven days on cloth, six days on rubber, and four days on metal.

Next: The germiest places on an airplane.

11. Latches on overhead bins

mature businessman shocked in airplane

Cut your stress level, and avoid the overhead bin as much as possible. | iStock.com/G-stockstudio

USA Today reports the latches on overhead bins get a lot of handling, but almost no cleaning. That makes them a hotbed for bacteria, viruses, and other microbes. Passengers are constantly opening and closing the bins, looking for their belongings and stashing additional personal items. If you needed another reason to travel light and fit everything into a bag that will slide under the seat in front of you, reducing your exposure to germs — and cutting your chances of catching a cold — is a good one.

Next: Bring your own reading material to avoid this germy item. 

12. In-flight magazines

flight attendant serving a meal

Don’t rely on (or touch) in-flight magazines. | Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Countless passengers handle those in-flight magazines and they’re not washable so the germs and microbes build up until a new magazine arrives. That might only happen quarterly for airline publications. If the in-flight magazine looks ragged, that’s probably a good signal that you should stay away. Bring your own reading material instead!

Next: Use your sleeve to move your window shade. 

13. Plastic window shade

seats on an airplane

Keep your hands off the window shade as much as you can. | iStock.com

Researchers determined that bacteria associated with MRSA and E. coli 0157 can survive on the window shade for up to three days. That gives them plenty of time to infect multiple flights’ worth of passengers. The New York Times also notes plane windows don’t block UVA rays. Researchers blame UVA rays for skin cancer, aging, and wrinkling so it’s probably a good idea to wear sunscreen, too.

Next: Safety features also germ hotspots. 

14. Seat belt buckle

Little boy looking out of window

Wipe down the seat belt buckle, or use hand sanitizer after fastening it. | iStock.com/photobac

You obviously can’t avoid buckling up, but Travelmath found the seat belt buckle has a cringe-worthy 230 colony-forming units of bacteria per square inch. Many airlines hire third-party cleaning services that focus more on a fast turnaround than thoroughly cleaning bacteria-infested surfaces. It probably wouldn’t hurt to clean off the buckle with a sanitizing wipe before buckling yourself in. Alternately, you can use hand sanitizer, and avoid touching your face,  after you buckle up.

Next: The reason why airplanes may be bad for your health.

15. Here’s why airplanes can be a breeding ground for disease

Washington DC airport

So many people, so many germs! | tupungato/iStock/Getty Images

You’re stuck in close proximity to dozens of people, and no, you don’t know if they’ve washed their hands today. This situation describes your most recent flight as well as any other that’s likely to leave you with cold symptoms like an annoying cough or an upset stomach. The CDC notes that nothing can stop the person in seat 3A’s germs from reaching you in 3C.

“When you go to the airport, you’re around people from all over the world. And not just people — also their germs,” Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told The Huffington Post. “Like any place of mass congregation, it’s a viral exchange center.” Dr. Richard Dawood, Telegraph Travel’s travel health expert, also said that the dry conditions inside the plane cabin increase your vulnerability to airborne diseases.

Next: The surprising airport that is likely to spread disease.

16. These airports were rated the most likely to spread disease

New York JFK airport

JFK is pretty germ-infested. | tupungato/iStock/Getty Images

The airport is filled with the hustle and bustle of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people hopping from state to state or country to country. Airports themselves can be a breeding ground for germs and bacteria. In fact, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department looked at the 40 largest U.S. airports to find which were the most likely to spread a disease.

It comes as little surprise that JFK and LAX were first and second on the list, respectively. However, Honolulu International came in third place, despite its significantly lower traffic. Its place in the airport transportation network (in the Pacific Ocean) connects to many distant, large, and well-connected hubs both domestic and international.
Next: Crucial tips to stay safe while flying.

17. Here’s how to fly disease-free

Woman waiting her flight at airport terminal

Drink enough water to stay hydrated. | VladTeodor/iStock/Getty Images

Rather than fear the diseases you could contract while flying, take preventative measures to stay healthy this season. Skip dehydrating drinks like alcohol, coffee, and tea and opt for water instead. Wear glasses instead of contacts to prevent dry eyes, and touch your eyes as little as possible. According to Forbes, research shows that your tear ducts are a major transmission route for germs into your nose and throat.

Wear loose-fitting clothing, invest in compression socks, and bring your own blanket and pillow as an extra safety measure.

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