Air travel during flu season

Air travel can be a germaphobe's nightmare – crowds of coughing and sniffling strangers, all of those surfaces to touch, public restrooms, and the small shared space of an airplane's cabin. But during cold and flu season, and especially these days with pandemic flu concerns, we all need to be extra cautious as we take to the skies.

Still, there's no need to panic – simply pack and prepare for prevention!

All hands on the flight deck: You want to practice proper hand-washing hygiene no matter what your altitude. But, wow, can it be tricky when you're using those tiny sinks installed in most commercial airliners. Add in the complication of having to hold down the faucet handle to keep the water running! To enhance your hygiene routine, stash a bottle of hand sanitizer in your carry-on. "Wait," you wonder, "what about the restrictions on liquids in your luggage?" As long as your hand sanitizer container holds 3 ounces or less and is stowed in a clear 1 quart-sized plastic zip-top bag, you're cleared for take-off. Use sanitizer before you eat or drink and after you've touched surfaces in the plane, like the overhead bins.

Breathe easy: An airplane may feel like a germ-trap. You're stuck inside of a tube with hundreds of strangers for hours at a time, some coughing and sneezing. You may have little control over your seating situation and worry that you'll catch something "in the air." But you can breathe a sigh of relief. The re-circulated air inside of an airplane passes through a high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filter before it comes into the cabin, minimizing passengers' exposure to potential pathogens.

Rest your weary head: More than ever, in-flight comfort gets compromised for the sake of economy – and sometimes for hygienic reasons. So, whether you're getting cozy in coach or stretched out in first, you'll notice that fewer airlines offer free pillows and blankets to their passengers. You probably wouldn't want to snuggle under a communal blanket anyway if you're worried another passenger may have used it as a hankie. To get some shut-eye through a red-eye flight, bring along your own travel pillow and blanket. You can find ones these days that can be balled-up into small carry-on-friendly pouches.

Stay hydrated: Skip the alcohol and coffee, which can dehydrate you. Water is your best option, or a vitamin-C-packed fruit juice such as orange or apple. When you're dehydrated, your nose and throat may become dry and more vulnerable to invading infections. If you're prone to dry nose, bring along a bottle of saline nose spray, which is exempt from the usual container size limits for liquids. And bring along gum or sucking candies to keep your mouth moist when the beverage carts are put away.

Travelling sick: If you need to fly but you have a mild flu or cold, be considerate of your fellow passengers by practicing stringent hygiene habits – washing or sanitizing your hands often, covering your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when you cough or sneeze, and avoid touching too many shared surfaces if you can. If you want to wear a mask or respirator to protect others from your germs, be sure to follow the instructions for proper use.

Ground your flight: For your own health and the health of your fellow passengers, you might decide to skip your flight if you're sick or contagious. The problem is, most tickets are non-refundable and airlines have different policies for handling requests to change or delay a flight. Many airlines make exceptions in the case of the death of a customer or immediate family member or travel companion, but otherwise, requests to change travel plans are handled on a case-by-case basis. Some airlines charge a change fee, while others will waive the fee if you provide a doctor's note. Still others will waive the fee if you go to the airport to travel and an airline representative deems you too ill to board. This fee-for-all mess makes a strong case for considering travel insurance. The extra upfront cost might be worth it, just in case you get too sick to fly.

Frequent flyers' insurance: If you travel often for business or pleasure, you might want to consider getting vaccinated against the seasonal flu. And when making your travel plans, keep in mind that it takes your body about 10 days to develop an immune response to the vaccinations.

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