Coughing kids, sticky trays, dirty seats—traveling can feel like a one-way ticket to Yuck City. Here’s how to stay healthy on your next adventure.

illustration of open suitcase
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk
| Credit: Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Be a Germophobe

A study at Auburn University, in Alabama, found E. coli lasted four days on airplane surfaces, while MRSA, a type of staph bacteria, lasted at least a week. Protect yourself by washing your hands often and keeping them away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. After boarding, bust out a pack of unscented disinfecting wipes and go to town on the armrests, seat pocket, tray table, overhead vent, and window shade, and your cell phone case for good measure. If heading abroad, ask your doctor for any medications or vaccinations well in advance of your trip.

Get Some Air

"Recirculated air can have a higher concentration of viruses or bacteria, which makes people more vulnerable to sickness," says David Weber, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, in Chapel Hill. The good news is that most plane air gets HEPA-filtered, so up to 99 percent of dust and microbes are gone once the air reaches you. To create an invisible air barrier against any airborne viral molecules, set your overhead vent on low and aim it in front of your face.

Watch the Water

Hydrating helps flush germs from your system. Bring a thermos and fill up at a water station. Limit intake of diuretics like alcohol and caffeine, especially on long flights. If you avoided tap water on your trip, consider skipping ice on the plane ride home since it's sourced locally and often not purified. "Bacteria are hearty and can survive on and in ice," says Dana Hawkinson, M.D., an infectious disease physician at the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City. Washing your hands with local water is fine, but follow with hand sanitizer to err on the safe side.

Find Humidity Help

Humidity on a plane is usually under 20 percent—about the same as in Las Vegas in the summer. "These conditions dry out the mucous membranes, and that makes us vulnerable to upper respiratory infections," says Weber. Bring saline spray for your nose, and if your eyes are prone to dryness, pack moisturizing eye drops. For overnight, a sleeping mask can help protect moisture in your eyes. If you wear contact lenses, use glasses instead. Also consider traveling with a portable humidifier to improve the air quality in your hotel room.

You Asked...Should I Worry About Blood Clots on Long Flights?

Sitting still on long-haul flights can cause blood to pool, which can lead to DVT (deep vein thrombosis), the development of blood clots in a deep vein. Clots are uncommon on short flights (less than four hours), while flights over eight hours put you at a higher risk. Elderly folks, cancer patients, pregnant women, and anyone prone to blood clotting should try compression socks. These keep legs and feet from swelling and can stave off potentially deadly clots, says Richard Korentager, M.D., the chair of plastic surgery at the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City. He also suggests doing leg and ankle exercises in your seat and getting up periodically to decrease your risk of blood clots.