Will Airplane Air Make Me Sick?

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Updated: 9/19/2011 11:12 am

In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics, including some of the oldest and most cherished medical myths out there. For our May 2011 issue, we asked David Freedman, MD, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a board member of the International Society of Travel Medicine, about the widespread belief that airplane air has lots of germs.

Q: Is it a myth that airplane air can make people sick?

A: Lots of people believe this, but it's actually FALSE.

Here's why: Airplane cabins come equipped with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters that are as good "as those found in isolation units in hospitals," Freedman says. "And viruses and bacteria are big enough that they are trapped in those filters."

The health risk with airplane travel, Freedman says, "isn't the recirculated air. It's the people sitting next to you." That's because when people cough and sneeze, the droplets can travel 3 to 6 feet in any direction.

What to do? Try to move your seat if you discover that someone sitting near you is sick. Of course, all those germ-laden droplets also land on trays, window shades, seats, and surfaces in the bathroom. So be double sure to wash your hands, "especially before you eat," Freedman advises. "Bacteria and viruses can live for hours -- and in some cases, days -- on inanimate objects."

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