How to avoid catching an illness or virus on a plane

We've all heard anecdotal evidence about people getting sick during air travel, but new research shows planes aren't quite the germ-infested virus spreaders some people fear they are.

A study published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) claims that it's practically impossible for one passenger with the flu to infect a whole plane, and it's actually sick flight attendants that pose a greater risk.

To avoid being infected with a virus on a plane, it's suggested you take a window seat, use the bathroom as little as possible, meticulously wash your hands and limit your interactions with the crew.

Being seated near someone who is ill does up your chances of catching it - but you've got to be really quite close.

Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences study shows how viruses move around planes in the sky.
Photo credit: PNAS

"Passengers seated within one row and within two seats laterally of the infected passenger had an 80 percent or greater probability of becoming infected," said the study.

"For all other passengers, the probability of infection was less than 3 percent."

The study found that an infectious passenger seated in the mid-cabin had the potential to infect an additional 0.7 additional people per flight, on average.

However, an infectious flight attendant who did not take medication to limit their coughing would infect an additional 4.6 passengers per flight, the study found.

The airline probably won't let you change seats if you get sat next to a sick person, but you can still decrease your chances of being infected.

Dr Amesh Adalja, a spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America, advises looking away from them when they're coughing or sneezing, avoiding touching your own face and eyes, limiting contact with shared surfaces and using hand sanitiser.

Richard Dawood of the Fleet Street Clinic in London says sick people shouldn't be allowed on planes at all - but if they are, the best way to stop them spreading their illness may seem a little extreme.

Getting a sick passenger to wear a face mask is the best way to stop spreading illness on a plane.
Photo credit: Reuters

"The ideal thing to do would be to get the person who's ill to wear a face mask," he told the The Telegraph.

"You could escalate it to captain level and say, 'here's a person who's a danger to other passengers and they should wear a face mask'.

"However, you could end up with a pretty nasty incident if someone digs in their heels."

The results of the PNAS study can be viewed on its official website.