Is Recirculated Air on Flights More Dangerous for Seniors?

Mar 27th, 2010 | By Sharon Shaw Elrod MSW EdD | Category: Lifestyle, Health & Fitness

Are the risks for seniors contracting an illness, such as cold or flu, from air travel increased because of recirculated air?  Many senior citizens love to travel, especially with the convenience and efficiency of airplanes.  But the concern for being exposed to colds and flu keep some of us from getting on an airplane any more then is absolutely necessary.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study in 2006 that revealed 1100 passengers on flights from San Francisco to Denver, on planes with recirculated air, reported no more colds than passengers on planes with fresh air.  In addition, The Lancet published an article in 2005 that concluded that the risk of getting a cold or the flu from flying is more closely associated with sitting within two rows of an already-infected person during a flight of eight hours or more.  This is similar to the risk in any confined space with a group of people—train or bus, or a meeting.

The circumstances surrounding exposure seem to be the critical factor, i.e., confined space, another person who is ill, and being in close proximity to that person. 

Since you may not be able to avoid being close to someone who is ill, and may be coughing or sneezing, exposure is a given.  But actually contracting the illness may be prevented. 

We have all been retrained with good hygiene since the H1N1 flu virus scare from 2009.  We have re-learned the best way to wash our hands in order to avoid carrying germs from someone else to our eyes, nose or mouth.  The same good hygiene is critical during air travel.  Whether we are aware of anyone within close proximity (two rows) being ill or not, washing our hands during the flight and refraining from touching our nose, eyes or mouth during the flight is good advice and just makes sense.  If washing is not possible, keep your hand sanitizer handy and use it often, especially if you hear a passenger close by who is sneezing or coughing. 

Based on current research, the threat of becoming ill from recirculated air on a plane is more perceived than real.



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