Traveling? Relax. ‘Flu zone’ is smaller than originally believed

By Carrie Johnson Weimar • Published: September 12th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Is there anything worse than being stuck on an airplane with some guy coughing and hacking a few rows away? You can’t help but cringe at the idea of catching an illness from one of your fellow travelers. During the H1N1 flu scare in 2009, this fear turned serious, and many people refused to travel during the height of the epidemic.

Scientists have a message for you: relax. The so-called flu zone on an airplane is actually much smaller than originally believed.

For the study, scientists tracked illnesses among passengers on two long flights to Australia in 2009. Several passengers onboard were known to be infected with H1N1. According to the researchers’ findings, about 2 percent of the passengers had a flu-like illness during the flight. In the week afterward, only a fraction of the other people on the plane became ill.

The scientists found travelers faced about a 4 percent increased risk for flu if they sat within two rows of an ill passenger. The risk jumped to 8 percent if they were sitting within two seats of the person who was sick.

From their findings, the scientists concluded the area of greatest risk was within two seats of the under-the-weather traveler. That’s the two seats in front of you, the two seats behind you or the two seats on either side.

How do you keep yourself safe on a long flight? Doctors recommend asking to change seats if you find yourself seated near a passenger who is visibly ill. Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face. This decreases the chances of spreading germs.

Also, take care when planning your trips. Try to limit trips during flu season, which lasts from November to March in the northern hemisphere.

But if you have to travel, try not to worry about every cough and sneeze in the cabin.