It's one of the least pleasant moments of air travel. You're settled into your seat, preparing to catch some shuteye or to relax with your favorite shows when you hear the dreaded sound. No, not a crying baby, something even worse: the sound of your fellow passengers coughing and sneezing. And all you can think about whether you know any tips for how to not get sick on a plane.
It's a believe held by everyone from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills' Lisa Rinna to the average traveler that recycled air inside a cabin circulates everyone’s germs around and around and causes people on board to catch something from a hypothetical sick passenger. But a recently released study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that fear may in fact be overstated. According to the study, the vast majority of passengers are unlikely to catch a fellow passenger's virus.
The study aimed to track how common respiratory illnesses are spread during air travel and so researchers flew on 10, mostly full, four- to five-hour cross-country flights on single-aisle planes, recording the behaviors and movements of passengers seated in economy. They observed how often the passengers got up to use the bathroom, checked the overhead bin, and other behaviors such as how often they interacted with each other. They also collected samples of commonly touched surfaces. An important caveat, however, is that they only looked at germs spread through droplets from coughing or sneezing and not other infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis or measles.
The researchers found that the people seated closest to a sick passenger — on either side of them or directly in front or behind — are the most likely to get sick. Putting to rest the commonly held fear of circulating stagnant air and its potential to infect, they found that the risk for everyone else is negligible.
Perhaps the study's most enlightening finding is that the passengers with the lowest risk were those seated in a window seat. That's because they were less likely to get up and move around the cabin (and therefore come into contact with potentially sick people). Hey, if not wanting to get sick pegs us as "selfish," we're willing to sacrifice our reputation for a healthy vacation.
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