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Snacks on a plane? Staying healthy during holiday travel

Dr. Howard M. Heller, Chief of Medicine at MIT Medical, talks about how to stay safe while traveling, especially on airplanes. What about that recirculated air? And what are safe and unsafe ways to eat on the plane?

Video transcript:
Howard M. Heller, MD, MPH, Chief of Medicine, MIT Medical, shows how to try to avoid flu and colds during air travel. Video consists mainly of Dr. Heller on camera, interspersed with some 50s-era archival footage of people on airplanes.

Dr. Heller walks in, sits down in an “airplane seat,” buckles his seat belt, then speaks into the camera.

People at MIT travel a lot, especially during the holiday season, and a common concern is, “What can I do to prevent myself from getting sick while I’m traveling?”

So we wanted to take a minute or so just to talk about things that you can do to prevent getting sick and catching infections during the holiday season while you travel.

What about that airplane air?

There’s a common myth that the air on the airplane, especially re-circulated air, is one of the reasons why people tend to get sick when they travel on airplanes. Actually, it has more to do with being in close proximity to other people who are coughing or sneezing in your general direction — nothing to do with the air in the cabin in itself.

If someone next to you is coughing or sneezing and not covering their face with either a tissue or coughing into their elbow the way they’re supposed to do, don’t hesitate to ask them to do so. And if they still insist on being rude and doing that, don’t hesitate to pull out your own mask and protect yourself.

Is the wipe-down worth it?

Wiping down your tray table or your armrest are probably of very little value in protecting you from picking up germs and viruses from other people. The most important thing is to be careful when you’re around things that other people have touched that still have moisture on them. So on the airplane, the bathroom is probably the highest-risk place for picking up germs that other people have left.

So if you want to be extra cautious, just carry a little bottle of hand sanitizer with you, and then if you do need to go to the bathroom and use the faucets and other things that other people have touched, when you get back to your seat, just put some hand sanitizer on your hands, and clean off before your hands go anywhere near your face.

Snacks on a plane?

The greatest risk of picking up germs and viruses that cause colds are when the viruses or the germs are on your hands and you touch your nose and your mouth. And that’s why eating on the plane is one of the ways that the viruses can get into you.

There are safer ways of eating on the plane … as well as some unsafe ways.

Flight attendant approaches with tray of drinks and snacks, coughs into her hand, and says, “Sir, can I offer you a snack?” Dr. Heller responds, “Why, thank you, I’ll have that one.” “Oh sure,” responds the flight attendant and hands him a bag of chips. Dr. Heller brings his hands and the bag of chips to his mouth and rips it open with his teeth. He then pours some chips into his other hand, eats the chips, and tells the flight attendant, “Very good!”

That was an example of an unsafe way to eat a snack on a plane. And this is an example of the safest way of doing it.

Flight attendant approaches with tray of drinks and snacks, coughs into her hand, and says, “Sir, would you like a snack?” “Why, yes, thanks,” responds Dr. Heller, “I’ll have that one.” He points to a bag of chips and she hands it to him.

In a voice-over, as he demonstrates the safe eating technique, Dr. Heller says to himself, “I’m pretty sure I saw her cough into her hand. How can I eat this snack, but do it safely? First I open my napkin, then I’ll pour the snack into the napkin. And then, of course, I sterilize my hands using the alcohol wash that I always keep in my pocket. Now that my hands are nice and clean, I can eat my snack.” He eats the chips and says, “Really good!” to the flight attendant.

So there are unsafe ways of eating on the plane, and very safe ways, and everything in between. And you need to decide for yourself how safe—or unsafe—you’re going to be.

One other thing that’s very important is that, since most people are going to be traveling during the peak flu season, get the flu shot. That’s at least one infection that you can prevent so you don’t get sick on your trip.

And with all the advice and everything that we’ve talked about today, you, too, can have a great vacation and not get sick on your way there or on the way back. I know that I will.

Dr Heller puts a lei around his neck, leans back and reads a magazine as the plane “takes off.”

Film footage: Prelinger Archives; Copyright MIT, 2009; Video produced by MIT Medical and MIT Academic Media Production Services

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