A germaphobe's guide to airports and airplanes

A germaphobe's guide to airports and airplanes
Source: Tri Vo/Mic
Source: Tri Vo/Mic

I am a germaphobe, and when it comes to traveling, my instincts fly into overdrive.

This wasn't always the case. Five years ago, I came back from from a trip to New Orleans with such a bad ear infection that my doctor said I came close to damaging my eardrum. Even worse: He said that because of my oddly shaped eustachian tube, I should never fly with even a hint of a sickness since it could ruin my hearing. That was enough turn me into a germ-fearing traveler.

I didn't realize then how hard it would be to protect myself from possible infections while on the road. At times, the stares from strangers made me feel like I had to sanitize in secret; I would quickly swipe surfaces clean with antibacterial wipes when no one was looking. Despite the judgmental stares, I've become a master at fighting germs on the go. Here are some of the lessons I've picked up over the past five years to ensure a healthy vacation.

How to get through security check

The ick factor: Airport security bins are constantly handled by hundreds of passengers. "Anything that is touched by numerous people can be one of the dirtiest objects in the airport," Philip Tierno, author of The Secret Life of Germs and a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU, said. And as you take off your layers to go through a security check, you're likely to expose more skin. "An opening in the skin can be a conduit of entry — that's how you get sick," he said.

The solution: Lay a jacket or plastic bag down in the bin first and place everything else on top of that safety net. Use the layer as a pseudo-mitten so you don't have to touch the bin itself. Place your shoes soles-up so the bottoms don't come in contact with your other belongings. And always keep your socks on. With so many people treading on that surface, you want to keep your feet safe.

How to change in an airport bathroom while touching the fewest surfaces

Source: Tri Vo/Mic

The ick factor: It's hard to avoid thinking about germs when you're in an airport bathroom: The square-footage is minuscule, the trash cans are often overflowing and an open toilet seat is glaring up at you. But there are times when it's still the best and only place to change your clothes.

The solution: Opt for a stall that's farther away from the door, one that's likely to have seen less foot traffic. And if no one in need is standing by, step into the wheelchair-accessible stall for extra space. Pre-pack the clothes you'll be changing into (socks included) in an old plastic bag with handles and hang it on the door hook. Switching pants can be a literal balancing act; keep your feet on top of your shoes so you never come in direct contact with the floor. And if you do need to lean, hang a jacket on the hook under the plastic bag so that you can fall against your own clothing.

How to eat and drink in the airport

The ick factor: In airport food courts, germs are likely to pile up on any communal surface, such as napkin dispensers, condiment containers and bins of plastic utensils (You probably touch a few when you grab one — and so does everyone else). In addition, anything that people touch directly — like the water fountain button or a touchscreen menu — could also be quite dirty. Since these items all come in close contact with the food you're about to ingest, the chances for germs to get into your body are heightened.

The solution: Carefully grab a napkin from the dispenser without touching the area around it (or better yet, use one you brought from home). Then, use that napkin to take any necessities you may need. Another way to avoid contact with buttons or screens is to pull your sleeve down over your hand as a barrier. If you're using a straw to drink, make sure to tear it in such a way that your hands only come into contact with the wrapper, so that no surface you're touching gets inserted into the liquid.

How to transform your airplane seat into a safe zone

Source: Tri Vo/Mic

The ick factor: The seats on a plane can contain "bacteria, viruses or pests, like body lice," according to Tierno. He added that some of the dirtiest spots are the headrests, seat belts, air vents and especially the tray table, which doesn't necessarily get properly cleaned, and comes in the closest contact with your in-flight snacks.

The solution: I tend to go overboard, ensuring that every surface around me — high and low, forward and back — gets a cleaning or two. Tierno agrees that using sanitizing wipes is the way to go. He also noted that clothing is "protective," so "chances are you won't catch anything from sitting in the seat."

How to deal with a coughing co-passenger

The ick factor: Being trapped in tight quarters with a passenger who is clearly sick is enough to drive even the most casual germaphobe nuts. The danger zone is actually a six-foot radius around the coughing flyer — or about three or four rows front and back, and two or three rows side-to-side, according to Tierno.

The solution: Unless you're on a very empty flight, the ideal solution of moving out of that zone is likely impossible. So the next best thing, Tierno said, is to make the one move guaranteed to draw attention to you: Bring and wear a surgical mask to prevent germs from getting into your system. If safety comes at a price, yours will be a little embarrassment — unless you're flying in or out of East Asia, where masks are a more common sight on public transportation.

How to survive an airplane bathroom

The ick factor: Based on volume of use alone, the airplane bathroom might be the biggest germ-spreading culprit. With so many passengers touching the same few spaces in a short amount of time, it's an ideal breeding ground for germs of all kinds. The door latches on both sides and the toilet seat are some of the dirtiest areas, according to Tierno.

The solution: Tierno admitted that he brings his own tissues to touch the seat because the provided toilet paper might come into contact with other surfaces. He also stressed the importance of not letting the automatic faucets cut short your hand washing (15 to 20 seconds is an ideal amount of time). "That friction when you're rubbing your hands is important since it cuts down on the number of bacteria," he said. The best practice is to use a hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol after washing your hands — and then again on your way back to your seat. "This way your hands are free of anything you may pick up in the bathroom," he noted.

These scenarios might be enough to keep germaphobes from avoiding air travel completely, but there's no reason to stop flying. Not all germs are dangerous, and the human immune system is strong at fending off what it needs to. "It's an unfortunate circumstance," Tierno said. "You're traveling by air and there are limitations. Just be aware. Once your hands are contaminated, refresh before eating and drinking, so it doesn't get into your system — and you'll be fine."