Why you always catch a cold on planes.


No, hiding in the toilet won’t save you. Quite the opposite, actually. (Image: Etihad)

Whenever I travel overseas, I’ll inevitably arrive at my destination with a souvenir: a Plane Cold.

You know the one — it sneaks into your system while you’re enjoying vacuum-sealed dinners and trashy films up in the sky, and then ruins the first week of your holiday.

I’m not the only one who’s been struck down by this particularly sinister travel bug; research has found plane passengers are at a 20 per cent increased risk of catching a cold. Great.

There’s a certain misery to being all snotty and snuffly when you’re trying to explore New York/Paris/Bangkok/wherever, so if you’ve got a flight coming up the following information will be very useful to you.

Why does this happen?

According to Dr Piraveen Pirakalathanan, Healthand‘s Principal Medical Officer, theories abound as to why planes are cold virus hot spots. He says researchers have examined a long list of possible reasons — food, water, alcohol consumption, even the kind of champagne served to passengers.

Studies of cabin air quality have found it to be “sufficiently clean”, partly due to the continual re-circulation and filtration. However, the dryness of the air can shoulder some of the blame.

To distract you from the possibility of catching a cold, here’s a meditation you can use on your next flight. (Post continues after video.)


“At normal flying altitude the air can be as dry as 10 per cent or more than being at normal ground level. Dry air is known to adversely affect the lining of our nose and throat and makes them more prone to infection,” Dr Pirakalathanan explains.

Another issue is that despite their stringent hygiene standards, plane cabins are a potential incubator for bacteria and viruses, which can survive for several hours.

“The toilet is a common place to catch infections, but other surfaces can include tray tables, pillows, blankets and even the magazines you might read in back pocket of a seat,” Dr Pirakalathanan says. Shudder.

On top of all that, long haul flights and high altitudes — not mention stopovers at weird times of the night and the fact it’s bloody difficult to sleep on a plane — can really tire you out, which then makes your body more susceptible to catching a cold. It’s a recipe for immune system disaster, basically. (Post continues after gallery.)

What can you do?

Now, the good(ish) news: Dr Pirakalathanan says there are strategies to help you ward off the dreaded Plane Cold. It’ll involve some forethought and preparation, but we can probably all agree it’s worth the effort to avoid starting your holiday with a sniffle.

Before you fly

“It’s important to be rested up before you fly and ensure your vaccinations are up to date — have your flu vaccination a few weeks before you travel to build up your immunity,” he suggests.


Then, when you check in online or at the airport, aim for a window seat. Not just because you’ll get all the beautiful views, but because it’s been shown that the aisle seat can increase your susceptibility to catching infections.

“It’s thought that because people frequent the toilet and when they travel up and down the aisle they might be contaminating surfaces or the environment around them, so it’s best to sit on the window seat if possible,” Dr Pirakalathanan says.

Avoid the aisle seat. We repeat: avoid the aisle seat.

While you're in the air

Remember the magic word: hydration. "Drink plenty of water, and it's best to avoid alcohol because that can dehydrate you," Dr Pirakalathanan advises.

It's also wise to pack some hand sanitiser and face wipes in your carry-on so you can keep your hands, and the objects around you, clean throughout the flight. You might look like a pedant, but you need to protect yo'self.

"The other thing you can do is open the air vents above you to try and keep the air that’s around you circulating, and if possible don't use the airline’s own pillows and blankets. Try to bring your own," Dr Pirakalathanan adds.

Unfortunately, there's also a chance someone on the plane will be sick when they board. If the person sitting next to you is visibly unwell, see if you can change seats — obviously this won't be an option if the plane is chockers, but you might get lucky.

Don't let anyone judge you for giving your tray table a little clean.



In my (online) travels, I came across another Plane Cold-proofing trick that's a little unusual, but highly intriguing. "I apply a thin layer of Vaseline around (ok, basically inside) each nostril. Supposedly it catches the germs to keep you healthy ... it's a little embarrassing but it’s never failed me," writes Byrdie editor Deven Hopp.

Dr Pirakalathanan says while there's no evidence to back this technique up, it could work for some people. "Given the theory that a dry inner lining of your nose and throat can predispose you to getting infections, I would say it probably doesn’t hurt. If you’re comfortable to do it, give it a go," he explains.

After you've arrived

Don't assume you're in the all clear just because your nose isn't running when you disembark — a cold can develop once you're at your destination, too.

"Be cautious in the airport itself, because that’s a potential source of infection as well. Be careful at the check in kiosks and baggage areas and make sure you keep hands clean," Dr Pirakalathanan suggests.

For the first few days of your holiday, he adds, take care of yourself and try to overcome any fatigue or jet lag as these can make you vulnerable to sickness. "Get plenty of rest and keep hydrated, and if you do get sick consider seeing a doctor."

Good luck, and bon voyage.

Do you get sick on planes? How do you try to prevent this happening?

You can find more information on avoiding sickness during a flight on Healthand.