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Have you ever flown and sat next to a sick person?

By December 22, 2008 - 11:41am
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I am getting ready to fly home for the holidays. It's a long flight and I'm reminded what happened last year. I boarded the plane and found my seat and settled in. When the woman arrived to sit next to me, she was sick

-- coughing, holding tissue and obviously feeling miserable. During the flight she sneezed and coughed quite a lot. And you guessed it -- within 24 hours of that flight, I caught the bug.

I felt sorry for the woman, she clearly felt badly. But if a sick person chooses to fly, must the airline allow it? If you are the person seated next to that person, do you have the right to ask for another seat? Or must you simply keep the seat and hope that you can stay well?

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If you think about how a cold and other respiratory diseases are spread, the best way to avoid "catching a cold" is to avoid the infected airborne droplets that are sneezed or coughed from the sick person, and avoiding surfaces that have been touched by the infected person (the cold virus can last up to 3 hours on surfaces).

- Hand-to-hand contact spreads the cold virus most frequently, followed by airborne droplets (from sneezing/coughing). WASH YOUR HANDS frequently (and avoid touching your own face)!! If you are unable to get out of your seat, the CDC recommends alcohol-based products made specifically for washing hands.

- Be as self-sufficient as possible to avoid as much hand-to-hand contact as you can. Bring your own food/drink as well as your own pillow, blanket (or use a sweater). (Not that you aren't already loaded-down with stuff to begin with!).

- To avoid excess exposure to droplets, you may try to point the little fan above your head toward the open space between you/the sick person (do not blow the air on them; err on the side of having it blow just on your shoulder).

- This may be over-the-top, but you can always wear a face mask! In fact, the NIH cites airborne germs as one of the top two sources of cold virus infection; some travelers have taken to wearing masks either to prevent infection, or when they themselves are already infected.

- If you can not find another seat, the sick passenger can be asked to turn their head away from people and cough/sneeze into a tissue to avoid spreading [as many] droplets into the air. They should also be washing their hands frequently.

- Another idea: stay well hydrated (bring your own water, if possible). The dry air in the airplane cabin may contribute to the higher percentage of cold transmission (see link below for study: "At very low levels of humidity, the "natural defense system" of mucus in our noses and throats dries up and is crippled, creating a much more tolerant environment for germs to infect us."). Drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol and caffeine (which can dehydrate you).

Here is an interesting article for all airplane travelers to read:

December 23, 2008 - 3:55pm

Yes, you have the right to request another seat - if available. You can even ask the flight attendant to see about moving the sick passenger (hopefully you have a diplomatic attendant, not one in a bad mood). The poor woman probably would have understood. There have been some rather rude passengers, though, who act as though they have a constitutional right to endanger other people's health.

December 22, 2008 - 5:24pm
HERWriter Guide

On paper - people should absolutely stay home if they are sick. Not only do sickie germs pass quickly and handily but trapped on an airplane with rather bad air quality to begin with - raises the risk that someone gets what the sick person has.

Not on paper - a couple of years ago we were preparing to fly into Amsterdam. A few hours before we left for the airport, our oldest, then age barely 3 started to vomit. We thought - oh no, what the heck do we do now?

He seemed ok afterwards but lethargic and we packed everything up and took him and our two babies at the time to the airport and just prayed to the heavens that he didn't throw up until we were in the air so they couldn't refuse us boarding!

He threw up in the bathroom of the plane a mere 20 minutes after we took off. The seatbelt sign wasn't even off yet and I pretended he was travel sick. What a horrid little person I am!

However, he was sitting with his family and didn't go near anyone else the entire flight (he was better the next day) and if we had stayed home, we would have had to forfeit a trip to Europe and $7000 worth of flights alone, not to mention the house we rented. That and missing the trip and seeing grandparents and so on. It's easy to say 'stay home' if it's just a weekend away for one person to see friends a few states away than a long planned, far off and expensive trip. I know that doesn't mean much to someone who catches a bug from an ill person on a plane but it does make things less simple.

Should we have done it? Maybe not, but we did. And obviously I don't know if anyone got sick because of my son (his parents and siblings did not, and I suspect it may have been food poisoning so he was not contagious but I don't know that for sure but if anyone would have gotten sick it would have been his family and we were all fine) but I think we were really between a rock and a hard place. I also brought anti-bacterial wipes on the plane and sanitized around us, both for my son's sake and anyone around us.

But airplanes are filthy places anyway. If those seats and carpets were white, we'd all die before entering a plane but we can't see the germs so we don't know. Turn around times on planes are shorter and shorter so there is no deep cleaning done. It's just a quick surface clean to minimize visual dirt and off the plane goes to it's next destination.

Honestly, if I were that woman on your plane, Diane, I would have worn a mask. I don't know what airline protocol is for flight refusal and I'm sure it varies from airline to airline. And I can guarantee you that plenty of pilots and flight attendants fly when they are unwell too. It's life, I guess.

When you think of several hundred people on a plane, the odds of everyone being well are very low. I's say at least a dozen are feeling poorly especially in winter. I don't know how you'd pinpoint someone who is ill and possibly contagious unless they are actively throwing up or some other obvious sign.

Sorry you caught the bug last year though. Air travel is an all-round germy issue!

December 22, 2008 - 12:28pm
EmpowHER Guest

Ask for another seat!!

December 22, 2008 - 12:16pm
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