A colleague had been on an airplane — and he felt a cold coming on. With watery eyes and a red nose, he asked, “Have you written about how to stay healthy on flights?”

It seems like it’s time to do so again, especially because flu season is on the runway.

Getting sick after a flight is a common complaint for a few reasons. Fliers are squeezed together. Planes are filled with germ-ridden surfaces and the circulating air at 30,000 feet has low humidity. Also, jet lag can mess with a person’s immune system.

How to fight those forces?

“Handwashing is the single most important infection control measure,” according to the Centers for Disease Control. Wash with soap and water for at least 20 seconds — and touch nothing in the lavatory afterward without the shield of a paper towel. Hand rubs with at least 60% alcohol will do the trick if soap and water are unavailable. Avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes with unwashed hands.

Beware the germiest places on planes. That includes tray tables and seat-back pockets, which could have held someone’s used tissues on the previous flight. I bring disinfectant wipes for the hard surfaces on my seat. When fellow passengers look at me like I’m nuts, I invite them to take a wipe. They almost always do.

The CDC also recommends getting vaccinated. For me, that means a flu shot this week, ahead of a trip.

Drink water during the flight. Studies have shown that is an effective way to combat the generally lower humidity of airplane air. It also helps the immune system run smoothly. Nasal saline mists are another tool. They keep the nose moist so it can effectively play its role as a filter for our airways.

Finally, to combat jet lag and the havoc it can wreak on immune systems, make incremental adjustments to the new time zone before the flight, sleep on the plane if you can, spend time in the sun upon arrival and drink lots of water before, during and after the flight.

 

Contact Travel Editor Kerri Westenberg at travel@startribune.com; follow her on Twitter: @kerriwestenberg.