Why We Catch Colds During Flights March 20 2016

Get a cold nearly every time you fly? Well, it's not because of the type of air on board. Whether your plane circulates fresh air -- or recirculates cabin air -- doesn't seem to make a difference, studies show. In recent years, new commercial aircraft have been designed to recirculate approximately 50% of the cabin air to increase fuel efficiency. But it's not been known whether air recirculation increases the transmission of infectious disease.

But some studies have shown higher rates of the common cold among people working in buildings that recirculate air, writes Jessica Nutik Zitter, MD, MPH, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. In their study, Zitter and colleagues included nearly 1,100 passengers boarding flights on airplanes that had the newer recirculated air systems and on planes that still used fresh air for ventilation. They made follow-up phone calls five to seven days after the flights, asking about symptoms of upper-respiratory infection. Their findings: Passengers aboard airplanes that recirculated air were more likely to have sinus problems. But as far as the common cold 21% of passengers aboard fresh-air planes reported colds, compared with 19% of people breathing recirculated air. The findings suggest that if there is increased risk of common colds among passengers, the main route for transmission is not air recirculation, Zitter writes.

It's the confined space of the aircraft that's probably the main reason why people get colds on airplanes. It doesn't seem to matter if you're breathing recirculated or fresh air. If the germs are there, you could get sick.

Droplets in the air from a sneeze containing germs are one of the big causes of person to person transmission of colds and viruses. That is why it’s a good idea to wear a surgical mask if you are sick or sitting within two seats from a sick person on a plane. Touching stuff, that people with colds have touched, counts even more. If you touch a cold virus germ, then touch your face, you've exposed yourself to the virus. Wearing a surgical mask may also provide as a barrier to the “route of entry openings” like your nose and mouth when you touch your face. The average person does this dozens of times a day without reckoning. Scratch your nose through your masks could prevent such a transmission.

To help prevent catching colds, wash hands frequently, avoid touching your face and wear a surgical mask.