November 26th, 2009
11:40 AM ET

Does flying put my family at risk for getting sick?

As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Connie in California:

"My family will be flying for the holidays. Should we be concerned about being in an enclosed space for five hours?"


Connie, more than 2 million people are expected to be flying over this holiday weekend and many have the same concern as you. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out there are not many studies about the spread of flu on airplanes, but anytime people are in close quarters the chance for germs spreading is much higher.

If you are sitting next to someone who is coughing excessively or seems ill, that’s when you are most at risk. According to researchers at Purdue University, you’re most likely to get sick from the people sitting in your row or the row behind you. They actually developed an animation showing how germs move around an airplane. If you’re in this situation, there are things you can do to lessen your risk of getting sick. Point the air vent away from yourself and towards the sick person – that may help push the germs back at that person. Also, turn your body away from the person who seems ill and as we’ve been saying – don’t touch your face. Dr. Julie Gerberding, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adds that you could ask a flight attendant whether a mask could be given to that person or if that person or you could be moved to another part of the plane. Gerberding also points out that the air on planes is circulated through a HEPA filter, so if you are several rows away from a sick person you’re unlikely to catch his or her germs.

Keep in mind, you can go a long way in protecting yourself by taking some simple steps. I know we talk about this all the time, but wash your hands frequently with soap and water. If soap and water aren't available, you can carry those alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue while sneezing and encourage people around you to do the same thing and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. We touch our hands to our faces a lot. In addition, some people might consider carrying a disposable mask, especially if you're feeling sick yourself. Finally, the CDC recommends that you get vaccinated, if you can. That’s sometimes harder than it sounds. For more information, check out flu.gov and CNN’s special report on H1N1.  Have a safe trip, Connie

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.