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Dr. Steven Gilchrist

We’ve all been there: Booked on a full flight, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, and a passenger one seat over starts to cough and sneeze. While some passengers may choose to check their baggage at the gate, there’s one thing we can’t check – germs. 

More than 2.6 million passengers fly in and out of U.S. airports every day, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports. That number always spikes during peak travel times, such as holidays. Overall, more than 100 million Americans are expected to travel during the holidays in 2018.

“Realistically, we will all be exposed to certain viruses and bacteria,” said Dr. Steven Gilchrist, a family medicine physician at Novant Health Steelecroft Primary Care. “The key is looking at ways to decrease the rate of transmission.”

To fight off germs during your travels, Gilchrist recommends these seven tips for your next trip:

Bring disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer

“Anytime I go on an airplane, I make certain that I at least carry a wet wipe, Clorox or Lysol wipe to gently wipe down the seating area,” Gilchrist said. He recommended also wiping down the tray table as people tend to place a lot of things on there without cleaning up after they are done.

Hand sanitizer and proper handwashing can also help prevent the transmission of viruses. “As a physician, we are in the room with sick patients every day. But take note how many times we wash or sanitize our hands,” Gilchrist said. “On average, most physicians wash or sanitize our hands two or three times while we are in the room, which also decreases the rate of transmission.”

Get enough sleep before the flight

Sleep is one of the best things you can do to help strengthen your immune system, Gilchrist said. Lack of sleep can disrupt your circadian rhythm – the 24-hour internal clock we all have running in our bodies. Throwing that off can cause a chemical imbalance, forcing your immune system to work harder than it needs to.

“We aren’t machines. We have to think about our bodies and immune systems like electric cars,” Gilchrist said. “Just like electric cars, we have to recharge ourselves and sleep is one of the best ways to do that.”

Have a barrier

If you’re near someone who’s sick and you can’t move to an open seat, think about using a barrier. Face masks are always an option to those who are traveling, and especially recommended if you’re sick.

Gilchrist recommended using a hoodie or sweatshirt as alternative barrier. “If things are really bad on an airplane or I can’t move, I wear a jacket with a hood so I can put my hood up and put my hands in my pocket,” Gilchrist said. “At that point, I try not to move until I get where I’m going.”

Stay hydrated

“Our bodies are 70 to 80 percent water. When you have a fever, you lose about 10 percent of your water weight,” Gilchrist said. “Your body then starts to work harder to replace those cells damaged from the fever, and you need healthy cells to have a healthy immune system.”

If possible, bypass the latte or soda and buy a bottle of water at the airport to bring with you on the plane. If you prefer a more eco-friendly option, bring an empty water bottle and fill it up at the airport. Having water on the plane with you will encourage you to drink more since it’s readily available.

Avoid touching your face

“One of the reasons toddlers get more infections is that they touch everything and then touch their ears, eyes and mouth,” Gilchrist said.

As much as you wash your hands or use hand sanitizer, you can still get germs on your hand from touching a door handle or sink faucet. Because there are so many ways for bacteria or viruses to get into the body, Gilchrist recommends trying not touch your face.

Stay up to date on all your vaccinations

“The No. 1 thing that will help prevent virus and disease transmission is staying up to date on all of your vaccinations, particularly the flu shot,” Gilchrist said. “Vaccinations will give you the best chance to fight off any viruses and bacteria.”

Avoid these common misconceptions

Gilchrist said many patients come in requesting a prescription Z-Pak, a medicine that helps treat bacterial infections, to help fight off any future colds. “Antibody therapy is not always the best treatment, because 90 percent or more of colds are from viruses,” Gilchrist said.

Some air travelers resort to amino acids, vitamins and supplements to try and build up their immune systems. Gilchrist advised simply sticking to a multivitamin, if anything, because taking a combination of vitamins and supplements can actually complicate and hinder your immune system.

If you do get sick whether during the holidays or after, Novant Health is here for you. For a list of urgent care clinics near you, visit NovantHealth.org/urgentcare.