Planes, Trains, and… Cold Viruses?

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Wherever you go, however you get there, you always have traveling companions — germs.

Will these fellow travelers make you sick? That depends partly on luck, experts say. But you can do a lot to protect yourself.

The modes of transportation most often blamed for spreading disease are airplanes, cruise ships, and subway trains. Are they just scapegoats? Or are these popular conveyances really making us ill? WebMD asked experts who’ve studied transportation health.

Up in the Air, Germs Are There

The Ides of March, 2003, was unlucky indeed for the 120 travelers who that day boarded Air China flight 112. The Boeing 737-300 completed its three-hour flight from Hong Kong to Beijing without apparent incident. But HEPA filters.

“Federal regulatory agencies need to tighten the rules in terms of ventilation and in terms of the colds is probably more frequent than you would have in just an office setting.”

Is There a Health Risk From Pillows, Blankets, and Tray Tables?

Germs don’t just fly through the air. They also lurk on contaminated surfaces — what infectious disease specialists call “fomites.”

Gendreau warns that there’s a lot of “hype” around this issue. The facts, he says, don’t turn up any obvious dangers.

“There have been a number of microbiological content studies of aircraft cabin. In fact, the FAA is currently looking into this,” he says. “The British government’s aviation health working group recently looked at microbial flora [germs] in two different aircraft types. They found that this stuff is not worse – and maybe better – than other places where people congregate like buildings or other modes of transportation.”

DeHart, a frequent flier just back from a trip to Asia, doesn’t worry about pillows or blankets, either.

“These blankets and stuff are pretty well cleaned. I don’t know in the medical literature of any spread from a fomite like that,” he says. “You can’t say this hasn’t happened. But I don’t worry about it. I will certainly use a blanket to stay warm and cozy so I feel like going to sleep. Although usually I use my own air pillow because it adjusts.”

If you’re going to worry about contamination on airplanes, shift your focus from the overhead compartment to the onboard water system. A recent EPA study found coliform bacteria – germs associated with feces – in coughing and under the weather, you will be worse after flying. So you need to have taken good care of yourself, and ensure you are taking the stomach flu” — although these bugs have nothing at all to do with the hearing loss among transit workers. While studying the issue, she decided to look at other subway health issues. What she found was … not much. It turns out there’s very little scientific information on infectious disease in the subways.

“Subway systems are big public-use spaces,” Gershon tells WebMD. “There are 14 big U.S. subway systems and millions and millions of riders. For any number of reasons, there are health hazards. But there is this huge volume of people, and we are not studying it.”

When Gershon turned her attention to infectious disease spread on subway systems, she found “not one scientific paper at all.”

“You can imagine because of all the surfaces, all kinds of organisms can be transmitted from the hand rails, the head rests, the seats,” she says. “It is almost inevitable disease transmission has happened, but it is hard to prove.”

Meanwhile, Gershon is taking precautions.

“After riding the subway, I never put anything in my mouth without washing my hands,” she says. “I don’t touch a thing in my office without going to the sink. The rails and everything are loaded with pathogens. Hand washing is a simple thing, and it is the only thing you can do. I have seen a couple of people wearing face masks, but I wouldn’t go that far. Clearly data are needed.”