Pass the hand sanitizer, please.
Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

It's no secret that the inside of an airplane isn't exactly a germ-free oasis-bacteria are crawling all over your armrests and tray tables. But according to an ick-worthy new study, the dirtiest part of your trip might actually be before you even get to the gate. (Related: 6 Flight Attendants Explain How to Fight Germs On Planes)

Flu season is officially upon us and a trip to the airport is like walking into a petri dish. Coming into contact with all those people-and all the surfaces they've touched-is a prime opportunity to get sick, as evidenced by the news of sick Emirates passengers who tested positive for influenza and were hospitalized.

To help you stay healthy when you travel, researchers at the University of Nottingham and the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare looked at some of the germiest spots in the airport during peak flu season at an airport in Finland-the bathrooms, the handrails on the escalator, elevator buttons, passport control counters-to figure out where the nastiest germs are lurking.

The dirtiest place might surprise you. According to the study's findings published in BMC Infectious Diseases, those plastic trays at airport security are the dirtiest things you'll encounter. When you toss your passport, phone, and jacket into the tray, it could be coming into contact with any of the four viruses-including influenza A and rhinovirus (the cause of the common cold)-that the researchers picked up from samples taken from the trays. *Someone please pass the hand sanitizer.*

Touching things isn't the only way you can get sick while moving through an airport terminal. While the researchers found germs that can make you sick in 10 percent of their surface samples, a quarter of the air samples they took tested positive for bugs.

Though gross, the findings don't mean you're definitely going to get sick (most of the time you make it to your destination totally healthy, right?). But they do help shed light on how you can lower your chances of coming down with a cold or the flu.

Since you can't clean the entire airport (the study authors included several recommendations for airports to help keep things clean like adding more hand sanitizer stations and cleaning trays more frequently), toss a bottle of hand sanitizer and some antibacterial wipes in your carry on to de-germ your stuff once you get through security. (Want more ways to stay healthy in transit? I put these healthy travel tips to the test while traveling across the globe.)