Even if you don’t have a fear of flying, you may be worried about coming down with the flu in the cramped seats and recirculated air that is part of the air travel experience. For people with a primary immunodeficiency disease, the concern over getting sick while in the air may be heightened due to a compromised immune system.
Researchers at Atlanta’s Emory University recently took on those fears by observing passengers during a series of cross-country flights in the U.S. to try to figure out how and why people might contract an illness while flying. What did they discover? It depends on where you sit.
The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that viruses like influenza were unlikely to be transmitted beyond 1 meter (3 feet) of the infected person. So if you catch something on a plane, researchers say you were probably sitting within one row of a sick passenger.
Even moving around the plane doesn’t matter all that much when it comes to getting sick, the study found. While 84 percent of the passengers observed by researchers came into close contact with someone beyond the 1 meter radius of their seat while moving around the cabin, those interactions were brief. The study also found a sick member of the flight crew is also unlikely to infect passengers since airline workers would likely stay home if they were seriously ill or would be taking medication to control coughing if they came to work.
As for that recycled air, respiratory illnesses like the flu are transmitted through droplets, which quickly fall to the ground and don’t become airborne. Researchers caution that the study doesn’t apply to “aerosol” conditions like tuberculosis and measles.
The study didn’t look at transmission between passengers when getting on or off the plane or while waiting in the airport.
Aside from getting lucky with the right seat, researchers say another way to avoid getting sick in the air is the same way you avoid illness on the ground: washing your hands.