Air Travel Germs: What’s The Real Risk?

Germs seem to linger in the recycled air on a plane and everyone has a story about sitting near a person with alarming flu symptoms. But do airplanes and airports really harbor more germs than other places? And do those germs cause illness?

Bacteria are surely present on many surfaces in an airplane cabin, including those you may not have even thought of. Whether or not they are hazardous depends on what kind of bugs they are, how long a person is exposed and how each individual person's immune system handles them.

A small study conducted by the website Travelmath tested surfaces people are likely to come in contact with during air travel. A microbiologist collected samples from five airports and four different flights on two carriers, then analyzed the samples for levels of bacteria, or colony-forming units.

The Travelmath study found high bacteria levels in several locations during air travel, and the site declared these the four germiest places on an airplane, on average: the seat-back tray table; the overhead air vent; the lavatory flush button; and the seatbelt buckle. In the airports, the germiest spots were drinking fountain buttons and restroom stall locks.

However, the study did not state what specific kind of bacteria were found. And that's part of the challenge in checking bacteria on airplanes -- they are in endless flux due to different locations, passenger populations, airline cleaning policies and other factors.

Where do bacteria mostly thrive? Soft, porous surfaces like upholstery, as well as harder surfaces that don't have natural bacterial resistance, like plastics. The surfaces most often touched by people’s hands or other organic materials such as food, as well as those less likely to be cleaned frequently are probably the worst offenders.

Travelmath noted that the kind of bacteria they found did not seem to be the most dangerous.

Credit: CBS News

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