Breathe easy, hypochondriacs. Stocking up on tiny bottles of Purell and downing liters of water are good practices for staying healthy on the road, but you aren’t necessarily more at risk for contracting contagious illnesses in-flight than anywhere else indoors.
That’s the news, at least, from recent research, including an August study by the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board. The findings claim that flyers aren’t significantly more likely to pick up bugs in the air than they are in confined spaces on solid ground, and that movie theaters, subways, and office cubicles incubate germs just as successfully as airplane cabins.
In fact, despite planes’ grimy reputations, the air onboard jets might actually be purer than the oxygen circulating throughout many office buildings. Large planes typically replenish the airflow every four minutes, while the average office building waits five minutes or longer before refreshing. Moreover, most large planes ventilate air through hospital-grade HEPA filters, which block as much as 99.7 percent of bacteria and virus-carrying particles.
As for the in-air chills and achiness that many passengers experience on long flights, that’s likely due to a mild case of altitude sickness. Cabin pressure is typically stabilized at 8,000 feet above sea level, which is still thinner air than most passengers are used to breathing, and the quick change in altitude can exacerbate those icky symptoms.