The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

October 24, 2012

Do frequent flyers have more colds?

By Judy Rupp, columnist
Enid News and Eagle

— Several times each year, Christine travels cross country by air to make presentations to her sales staff. Far too many times, she has noticed, she is miserable with a head cold while making her Powerpoint presentation.

Frequent flyers often note the connection between colds and air travel. One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association [August 2002] seemed to confirm it. Of 1,100 airline passengers traveling from San Francisco to Denver on a two-hour flight, 21 percent reported getting a cold within seven days of their flight. That compares to only 3 percent in the regular population who would expect to catch a cold over the same period.    

Rather than establishing proof, the study “suggests the need for further research on this topic,” the authors wrote. The question is why, and it may have less to do with the nature of air travel than the fact that several hundred people are sitting in close quarters.

Some have worried about the use of recirculated cabin air in some aircraft, and this study effectively dismissed this concern. There was no difference in the rate of colds among subjects flying in older aircraft that use 100 percent fresh air and those flying in more economical 737s supplying 50 percent recirculated air. Although some of the air is recirculated, it is also filtered to remove dust, bugs, viruses and fungi. Cold viruses are carried on tiny droplets that are big enough to be trapped by the filter.    

One advantage of the new system is that airflow is from the top of the cabin to the floor rather than from front to back as it is with older aircraft. Less air is shared among passengers with this top to bottom air flow.    

Infectious germs can be picked up during air travel, and there are confirmed cases of the flu, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and tuberculosis tracked to passengers on airlines. A traveler with SARS, for example, infected 16 persons staying at a Hong Kong hotel. Six of these travelers then took flights to Australia, Canada, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam — causing outbreaks in all of these countries within a matter of days.    

Although crowded conditions are probably the major reason for germ transmission, the low cabin humidity at high altitudes is another risk. At 10 percent humidity or lower, the protective mucus in the nose and throat dries up and becomes less effective at filtering out germs.    

The best approach to dealing with this drying effect is to sip water or another fluid regularly, rather than drinking a whole lot just before you take off or after your throat feels parched.     

That’s difficult to do because Homeland Safety rules forbid you from carrying a full bottle onto the plane. The solution is to bring an empty bottle with you and then fill it once you’re on the plane.    

If you feel yourself coming down with a cold or other illness before you fly, you should do everything you can to put your plans on hold. That’s not easy, but you don’t want to expose others while you are still infectious. And the flight will only make you feel worse.    

The Eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the back of the nose, is responsible for maintaining equal air pressure on both sides of the eardrum. When it is blocked due to congestion, the pressure on the eardrum can cause extreme pain, tinnitus (ringing in the airs), vertigo (a sense of spinning) or even rupture of the ear drum.     

In the old days of air travel, airline crew passed out hard candy and chewing gum during takeoffs and landings. Today, you’ll have to buy your own. The idea is to force you to swallow frequently, helping equalize air pressure. Giving a baby a bottle or a pacifier during this time has a similar effect.    

Air pressure can also be equalized through use of the Valsalva maneuver. Hold your nose closed, then try to exhale while keeping your mouth shut. The faint popping you’ll feel is a sign that the air is being equalized.    

These measures are particularly helpful for the mild or moderate discomfort that nearly everyone feels. However, if you have a head cold or sinusitis, you should consider taking a decongestant ahead of time to ease the congestion. This can be an oral medication or a nasal spray.

Colds and other respiratory infections are no fun — whether they occur before, during or after air travel. If you’re a frequent flyer, you’re undoubtedly familiar with all of the problems and are learning, reluctantly, to deal with them.

Rupp is a certified information and referral specialist on aging for NODA Area Agency on Aging. Contact her at 237-2236.