Avoiding germs on airplanes

Just in time to make you sick for the holidays comes word of the germiest spots on airplanes and in the airport.

As every frequent flier knows, all it takes is one fellow passenger sneezing and coughing their way to the destination to make you feel like you’re trapped in an iron germ factory. (As I write this, I am on a plane headed to Los Angeles. The woman in the row behind is sneezing. Ugh.)

Several days before I fly, I start dosing myself with vitamin C. I continue throughout the trip and for a couple of days after I get home. It seems to help. Avoiding the germiest spots in airports and on airplanes can help too.

Peter Sheldon, vice president of operations and development for a company called Coverall Health-Based Cleaning System, says there are five spots to beware of when you’re traveling. He offers tips for protecting yourself and your kids:

1) Plane potties

During each flight, as many as 75 different people might use one plane lavatory. No surprise, then, that studies show almost every surface of the plane potty is teeming with E. coli. It doesn’t help that the financial pressures on airlines means that planes are on the ground for only the briefest period, severely limiting the cleaning time available. To make matters worse, that tiny little sink makes it nearly impossible to thoroughly wash your hands. Even if you do wash your hands, when you leave to return to your seat, you’ll be touching the same door handle that was touched by everyone who didn’t.

Solution: The easiest solution is to steer clear of the plane potty. When that isn’t an option (remember how it was when you were pregnant? Or potty training your toddler?) use a paper towel to turn faucets off and on, to close the lid before flushing, and to open the door. Carry sanitizing wipes and use them once you’re back at your seat.

2) Reading materials

Because not everyone is as conscientious about washing their hands as you are, try not to touch anything someone else is likely to have touched. That starts with the onboard magazines and catalogs that have been handled by hundreds of others, at least a few of whom wiped their runny nose with that same hand they’re using to hold the magazine. If that doesn’t give you a mental image of “eww,” how about this: Sheldon asks, “[H]ow many times have you seen someone absentmindedly lick their finger to help turn the page?”

Solution: Bring your own reading materials.

3) Public drinking fountains.

That whole TSA-required ban on liquids through security makes life difficult for those of us who like to sip a beverage at the airport or on the plane. Filling a water bottle from a public drinking fountain exposes you to as many as 2.7 million bacteria per square inch on the spigot, Sheldon says.

Solution: He suggests forking over the airport-inflated price for a sealed bottle of water after you get through security or bringing a small (3 ounces or less) bottle you filled at home. I have a better idea: stop at the Starbuck’s counter and ask them to fill your bottle from their water supply.

4) Airline pillows and blankets

The reality is that it’s tough to find either on a flight these days unless you manage to upgrade to the first class cabin. If there is one, chances are someone fell asleep and drooled on it. Eww again.

Solution: Bring your own. I never travel without a pashmina. It works as a colorful shawl to dress up an outfit when you’re on the ground and as a blanket during a chilly flight. If you simply must take a nap, spring for one of those neck pillows they sell all over the airport. There are inflatable ones that will tuck into a pocket. If you prefer a cushier one, add a hook and clip it to your backpack or carry on. And always dress to travel in your heaviest layers-it will keep you warmer on the flight and free up valuable space in your suitcase.

5) TSA security screening areas

Everyone over 12 years of age is expected to practically strip to get through security-including taking off their shoes. I am stunned by the number of people who then walk barefoot through security. At O’Hare, one of the world’s busiest airports. Triple ewww.

Solution: This is a no-brainer. Wear socks. Enough said.

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