Research at the University of California, San Francisco, into how to prevent colds and flu has found that approximately 20% of us who fly, suffer from a cold or flu within days of flying. This is around four times the average occurrence of catching a cold in other circumstances.
The single reason for this has to be that in a flight a lot of people are in a closely confined space with all the breathed air being recirculated. It only takes one person in the group who has a contagious cold for there to be a risk for, just about, everyone in the confinement to succumb.
Research has shown that the the most successful way for the cold and flu virus to attack and enter your system is by hands and fingers touching the face, nose, mouth and eyes. There will be viral material floating in the air from coughing and sneezing but this risk is much lower than viral infection sitting on the surface area of, just about, everything around you. When we touch any surface there is an almost 100% risk that we will get this microscopic material on our hands and fingers. We must be aware that a virus can live outside its host for up to 72 hours, providing plenty of opportunity to spread to a new host.
What can we do, as individuals, to prevent colds or flu when trapped in such a germ ridden environment as an aircraft cabin?
We have to, as far as it is practical, avoid touching surfaces or at least be aware that all surfaces may hold viral material.
Instead of using the provided pillows, consider taking your own or placing a layer of your own between it and your face.
A good precaution that I take is to use elbows to push doors open and knuckles to press buttons rather than finger tips. On top of this, washing hands regularly, almost to the point of appearing as a compulsive habit, has to be among the best points of advice.
If I experience symptoms of a cold coming on, which nearly always starts with a soar throat, I chew fresh garlic. When ever I travel abroad I hide a couple of bulbs of garlic cloves in my luggage. I cut a clove in half and chew it slowly to release the juices into my mouth and swallow. I find this method to be extremely effective and recommend it to everyone but be warned, fresh garlic is hot in the mouth. Keep a bottle of cold water near by because you will need it.
Research has also shown that having a healthy nose will provide an advantage. The internal area of the nose must be kept moist. This can be achieved by drinking plenty of water for a couple of days before travelling. Drink more than you would normally. This will hydrate the whole body including the interior mucous-membrane lining of the nose. If you want to take things to a higher level, it’s possible to coat the inside of the nose with a non-prescription antibiotic salve using a cotton swab. This is something that I will strongly consider if/when I fly again but I will seek advice from the local chemist before trying it. If I’m to put anything up my nose it will have to be odourless as anything that has too much of a smell, like perfume, will only make the journey worse. If you are aware that you have a dry mucous membrane inside your nose, then using a saline spray will help.
To recap: Wash hands thoroughly as often as possible. Make a conscious effort to avoid touching your face, nose, mouth or eyes.
Drink plenty of water before and during the journey to be well hydrated. Be aware that your nose internal mucous membrane must be moist.
In addition, get some rest and try to relax before the rigours of the journey and eat good quality food to give yourself every advantage of fending off any invading viral infections. These are things I will be doing the next time I fly because I know how important it is to prevent colds or flu especially when travelling.
The information presented here is intended solely for general advice and guidance to the reader. This is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice provided by qualified health professionals.
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