Avoid Infection During Holiday Travel
Dr. Pat’s Flight Routine

Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. is a Gynecologist, Director of the New York Menopause Center, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Assistant Attending Obstetrician and Gynecologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She is a board certified fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Allen is also a member of the Faculty Advisory Board and the Women’s Health Director of The Weill Cornell Community Clinic (WCCC). Dr. Allen was the recipient of the 2014 American Medical Women’s Association Presidential Award.

As part of my training to become a board certified physician, I did a year’s fellowship in infectious disease and I became a slight germaphobe after this special training. I tell you this to both explain and share my airline travel routine. After all, you fellow travelers are also at risk for the diseases to be found in the cabins of airplanes. Infectious diseases are one of the leading causes of death worldwide and respiratory infections occur in up to 20% of all travelers. Viral pathogens are the most common cause of respiratory infection in travelers and include rhinoviruses, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza virus, parainfluenza virus, human metapneumovirus, measles, mumps, adenovirus, and coronaviruses. Other causes are bacteria, including tuberculosis. Air-pressure changes during ascent and descent of aircraft can facilitate the development of sinusitis and otitis media (ear infection).

Of course, I have all my immunizations up to date. And, I check to see if there have been any reported carriers of tuberculosis, bird flu or Ebola recently. This was easier to do when the CDC had enough funding to update the travel warnings.

Packing list for the flight:
1. Non-latex gloves
2. Clorox wipes
3. Hand sanitizer
4. White cotton gloves
5. Plastic to cover the seat (bed bug prevention)
6. My personal washable blanket and pillow
7. N-95 face masks to prevent airborne infectious agents .
8. Boroleum ointment to insert into the nasal openings. (It traps viruses that pass under my mask and prevents them from taking up residence in my sinuses. It moisturizes the nasal mucosa, preventing easy access for germs.)
9. Take one Aspirin one hour before flight with food and wear compression stockings. (I believe both of these will decrease the risk of blood clot formation during long airline flights.)
10. EarPlanes ear plugs to prevent ear barotrauma from the pressure change that occurs during flights
11. Afrin nasal spray and Sudafed to prevent Eustachian tube swelling and ear and sinus pain after the flight or worse the development of sinusitis to mar an otherwise lovely holiday.
12. Moisturizer. (I use one of those wonderful new moisturizing face masks.)

On the flight:
1. After I board the plane, I put on a pair of disposable latex free gloves and start to work with the Clorox wipes, cleaning every surface in sight including the call button and those for air and light along with the window shade.
2. Cover the seat with plastic.
3. Remove and discard first pair of latex free gloves.
4. After settling in I finish my pre-flight routine:

    • Purell to hands followed by moisturizer.
    • Put on white cotton gloves.
    • Apply moisturizing sheet mask that has holes cut out for eyes, nose and mouth on face.
    • Place N-95 face mask around nose and mouth and tie securely.

Rules that I follow:
1. Avoid touching eyes, nasal opening or mouth with hands. These are the areas of entry for infectious agents.
2. Never ever touch those filthy back of the seat magazine pouches. You do not want to know what has been cultured from those places.
3. Bring my own food. The last time I ate food on a plane was a morning flight from Denver to Newark. I was starving and I ate bacon and eggs and a croissant with jam and two cups of coffee. Twenty minutes into the car ride to NYC from Newark and I realized that I had “food poisoning” from a toxin in poorly handled airline food. Nothing else makes anyone this sick this quickly. I will spare you the details. I don’t have to learn that lesson again.
4. Airplane lavatory survival: remove white cotton gloves. Replace with non-latex gloves. Before leaving the lavatory, remove and discard gloves and scrub hands with soap and water for 30 seconds. Use Kleenex to open the bathroom door. Discard Kleenex. Return to seat and replace white cotton gloves.

5. Drink lots of bottled water but avoid the nasty ice picked up by unwashed hands.  Room temperature water is fine.

6. Avoid alcohol and caffeine.

I bring extra masks and many small containers of Purel and Kleenex to give as Christmas gifts to the lucky passengers who are willing to make eye contact with me. At this point, I know that I am not a pretty sight but my preparation for air travel and adherence to this pre-flight checklist have worked well. While many of you just hope to land on a runway at the end of your holiday airline experience, I urge you to set your sights higher: hope to land without any infectious disease to take with you to your destination and to pass on to unsuspecting friends and family.

I send you best wishes for the holidays and safe travel wherever you are going.

Dr. Pat

Join the conversation

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  • Jeanie December 29, 2019 at 5:30 am

    I’ve read this article several times, Dr. Pat, and shared it with my husband and children. Your suggestions are excellent, and I appreciate your thoroughness. I will incorporate these into my own routine, which includes taking vitamin C with a glass of water most every hour during long-haul flights and making sure my Vitamin D3 level is high. Could you please share with us the particular moisturizing mask you use?
    I enjoy reading all of your articles and would like to thank you for your ongoing contribution.