The Dirtiest Parts of a Plane

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When you’re packing your carry-on for this weekend’s travels, don’t forgot to throw in a mask and rubber gloves. Some common, illness-causing germs can live for seven days (or longer) on the parts of the plane you touch most, like your tray table or your seat-back pocket, finds research from Auburn University.

The study team swiped two types of disease-spreading bacteria onto different, oft-touched parts of an airplane cabin. They did this (with encouragement from the Federal Aviation Administration) in order to figure out how long the germs would survive.

One of the bacteria they deployed, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is a common cause of respiratory disease and food poisoning, lasted up to seven full days on the cloth seat-back pockets where you’d normally stash your phone or magazines. (Maybe that’s why airlines keep the sickness bags tucked in there?) The other bacteria they used for the study, a nasty strain of E. coli that can cause cramps and vomiting, survived four days on airplane armrests. Both strains also made it at least a day or two on airplane window shades, toilet-flush buttons, chair leather, and plastic tray tables, the study shows.

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About 30 percent of the American population walks around harboring some type of sickness-causing bacteria, including the MRSA and E. Coli strains included in the research, says study coauthor Kiril Vaglenov, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow at Auburn. And while Vaglenov and his colleagues weren’t testing commercial planes for actual germ populations, their findings should still be enough to freak out the germaphobe inside you.

“Planes are high-traffic areas, and also are peculiar environments because the air is dryer than in most other places,” Vaglenov says. All that dry airplane air might actually speed the death of some bacteria, he says. But it also sucks moisture out of the cilia in your nose, throat, and the other areas of your body that house your mucous membranes. When dried out, these membranes aren’t as effective at trapping germs and preventing you from getting sick, Vaglenov adds.

What should you do about all this? You could trust that your airline is thoroughly disinfecting the entire plane in that 15-minute window after the other passengers de-board and you get on. (Ignore the fact that there are still old gum wrappers and magazines in your seatback pocket.) But if you’re still worried, keep your hands away from your eyes, mouth, nose, and ears while flying, Vaglenov recommends. Also, wash your hands thoroughly as soon as you get off the plane, he adds.

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