In "Before Times", I often take a plane to go on vacation, and visit friends on weekends-and I will inevitably get sick immediately when I get home. Whether it’s a 10-hour flight back from Italy or a two-hour flight after a beach weekend in North Carolina, that trip quickly caused hoarseness and chills in the throat, which later turned into a stuffy nose. It feels like it's inevitable-and it became more obvious that I didn't fly anywhere during the pandemic, and had much fewer colds during the process.
This phenomenon not only hit me. Dr. Paul O'Rourke, MD, MPH, deputy project director of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Internal Medicine Residency Program, told us: “People do notice after flying a few days that they do have some problems.”
Whether your first vacation is in the next few months or next year, when the vaccinated people start to travel again, it’s best to learn more about the culprits of the diseases caused by these flights to better protect yourself-especially because Coronavirus is still a very real thing. I discussed with experts why flying, especially, why it makes you feel so bad, and what you can do to prevent these diseases when you start traveling in the near future.
Culprit 1: You are not drinking enough water
Whenever I fly, I tend to avoid drinking water, although experts recommend staying hydrated. Asking the person next to me to stand up and let me go to the bathroom makes me feel terrible-but I still almost always choose the window seat. However, according to Dr. O'Rourke, this may be why I felt so bad after the flight.
“In airplanes, as they ascend, the cabin gets to be very low humidity, low water moisture in the air,” he says. “That causes our nose and throats to really dry up.”
Dr. O'Rourke explained that due to lack of proper hydration, dryness can make you vulnerable to viruses and may cause your throat to rupture or reduce the mucus lining that usually helps protect you from bacteria. Therefore, if the disease can be reduced, it may be worth forcing yourself to disturb strangers.
In addition, if you drink alcohol on an airplane, you should be extra careful to ensure that you are hydrated while in the air.
Culprit 2: Bacteria are everywhere
Dr. O'Rourke believes that because of the HEPA filter and air circulation, people are as likely to get bacteria from the air on an airplane as in any other enclosed space, but people can still get the bacteria through hand-to-mouth contact, if you eat on an airplane. This can happen with snacks and without proper utensils. Wearing a mask on an airplane—yes, even after you get the COVID-19 vaccine—can help minimize this.
Dr. Dana Hawkinson, Infectious Disease Doctor and Director of Infection Prevention and Control Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center, pointed out that even if you may be vaccinated against the coronavirus, you are still susceptible to other respiratory viruses and other infections. This is why it is particularly important to maintain proper hand hygiene and other non-pharmacological interventions (such as wearing a mask and keeping as far away as possible) when traveling.
Since the pandemic, although airlines have been extra cautious about disinfecting aircraft between flights, there are still areas with high traffic that require extra care, namely tray tables and seat bags. It is very important to pay special attention to these areas in terms of hygiene. If you put anything in the pouch in front of you, wipe it clean before touching your face.
Culprit 3: Your vigilance generally declines
There is no way to solve it: travel is stressful. You may be more worried about trying to find your boarding gate before boarding time than refilling a reusable water bottle. The same goes for disinfecting hands or wiping the seat.
"You are going to travel, so you may not take optimal hygiene measures," said Dr. Hawkinson. Generally speaking, the same is true for holiday travel. And you may not try your best to get enough rest or maintain healthy habits, which may affect your immune system on the flight home.
Simply make a mental checklist about drinking water, wearing a mask, disinfecting, and not touching your eyes or nose, and you won’t feel terrible for a few days after you go home. Although it is natural to indulge in the holidays and make things a little easier, be sure to check your body and the feeling of the whole trip.
How should you know if you need to be tested for COVID?
According to Dr. Hawkinson, most respiratory infections do not begin to show symptoms until about 3 to 7 days after you are exposed to the virus, including the common cold, and yes, and COVID-19. Even if you are vaccinated against the coronavirus and still feel sick after flying home, it may be worthwhile to take a COVID test for safety reasons.
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that anyone with any symptoms of COVID-19 be tested, regardless of vaccination status. Therefore, if you have a cough, fever, chills, or loss of taste, it is best to check to make sure that people around you who may not be vaccinated do not get sick.
Dr. Hawkinson added that those who are vaccinated won’t feel the effects of COVID-19 as deeply. “If you are fully vaccinated with whatever vaccine, you’re going to have less risk of having those symptoms overall and you’re going to have less risk of having a prolonged duration of active virus or active viral replication,” he says. Even so, he suggests still getting a COVID test because you may come into contact with unvaccinated people and put them at risk. Quarantine properly until you get your test results, maintain a safe distance from others, and follow other hygiene protocols like mask-wearing and washing your hands .
“At this time, if you get sick, I would encourage people to stay home and consider getting a rapid test just to confirm that you can be safe going around other people,” Dr. O’Rourke adds.