Passenger Next to You Coughing Up a Storm: How Do You Avoid Getting Sick Inflight?

I’ll cop to using my twitter account to vent frustrations during travel. Sometimes it’s the best way to stay say, because travel really can drive you to the edge.

I took a set of connecting flights, and on flight number one was seated next to someone that was sick.

Then I took my next flight. It was a completely sold out flight. I was initially thrilled with my upgrade at the gate. But once I settled into seat 5A I discovered that the passenger sitting behind me in 6A was sick as well.

Much coughing ensued. There was no opportunity to change seats. I guess I could have (should have) gotten off the plane. And I realize that this is a challenging question, what to do — for sick passengers, for those not wanting to get sick, and for the airline?

  • What do you do when you’re sick, balancing your need to be somewhere with an obligation not to spread your germs?

  • What do you do when you’re traveling and near others who are sick, to protect yourself?

  • What should airlines do, transporting people and spreading illness — not just from person to person in an enclosed space, but geographically — bringing sickness from one population center to another?

I try not to fly when I’m sick. I’ll reschedule trips. That means eating change fees. It’s a cost I have to bear myself, and I don’t expect the airline to bear.

Reader @joelfreak suggests,

allow free changes if someone is too sick to fly…

But that seems pretty cumbersome and unworkable. If there’s no proof required, every gets out of change fees. Sounds nice, but it undermines the entire airline fare structure. And while I have no doubt airfares are ripe for disruption in some manner, it doesn’t seem proportional to the issue — especially since people would still continue to fly. It’s naive to think the other reason people keep to their trip schedule is because of the cost of making changes. They go because of their obligations, or the opportunities they have when they get there.

On the other hand, requiring proof — a doctor’s note? While easy to concoct one of those (please see: medical marijuana prescriptions in California, emotional support animals inflight), it also means driving up health care costs through incremental doctor visits, stretching the health care system by increasing the demand for doctor attention for minor (or even barely-existent) issues.

Nonetheless I’d certainly be open to hearing workable solutions. Although I do like this hopefulness from @real_jetsetr,

wouldn’t worry about it. Germs you caught from pax on flt #1 will offset & eradicate germs from pax on flt #2

He should have gone to medical school! #brilliant

I do think there’s something to face masks, though would have to lean on the doctors amongst my readers to know just how helpful they would be… for the person coughing, as well as for the person not wanting to get sick. They’re very common among airline passengers in Asia, less so elsewhere in the world. My Pacific crossings pre-SARS were mostly limited to Australia trips, so I don’t have the historical experience for comparison but always guessed that the prevalence of masks in Asia dated to SARs. Perhaps one of y’all know?

I do wash my hands frequently, and carry hand sanitizer as well.

What do y’all do to stay healthy — besides getting sleep, exercise, and eating well?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Absolutely despise being stuck next to someone sniffling and/or coughing for a transcon or any flight. Had this a week ago and there was an empty seat in the row so I asked the lady to move over a seat so we had more room (insert eye roll).

    I think the airlines should definitely have face masks available for flyers who are sick and don’t want to spread germs or those who are healthy and don’t want to catch germs if someone near them is hacking.

  2. While not exactly in your league, my annual mileage is just over 50k but it’s all TransCon and TransAtlantic – no flight shorter than 5 hours, so I’m exposed for longer intervals. I have never become ill after a flight. Two things I am convinced help are plenty of sleep and keeping my eyes, ears, nose and mouth free of germ transfer from my hands. I stay very alert to germ potential while in public places. I have also learned to sleep on long flights – it took years and a set of Bose noise cancellation headphones before that happened.

  3. Oh,, Im part to blame, so last week I got sick (not sure what) on my trip.. and then got stuck with this cough (that not even cough drops would fix) I felt bad for the taxi’s and the people on the airplane.. but I did need to get home.. (oh what could I do) since my flight was discounted, it was non refundable, meaning I had to fly, I felt bad and I did try to buy a mask in the airport yet didnt find any.. Sorry to all! We feel bad too, no one lights being sick!

  4. Just part of the flying experience along with crying babies, tarmac delays and overcrowded close together seating. I get a flue shot and a pneumonia shot and continue to strengthen my immune system with exposure on every flight!

  5. I agree flu shots are a good idea especially if you’re a frequent traveler. I also pack immune boosters like Zicam or Airborne with my medications and will take one shortly after landing if I’m in a situation like you described.

    Staying well hydrated and even moisturizer helps keep skin healthy too.

    Honestly I think the biggest thing in terms of making the most of a situation like that is attitude though. Yeah. It happens (like if you have small kids in daycare, they’re just going to get sick. You can take precautions, but you can’t avoid completely.) You can roll your eyes at fellow passengers if you want, but it’s not going to help anything and it’s just going to make your own flight miserable if you get all worked up about it.

    I once caught something that developed into bronchitis on a flight to Europe and it knocked me out for a month. Scariest part was the flight home – I was absolutely miserable. Gross as it is to sit beside someone hacking up a lung, I can just about guarantee they’re even more miserable. Move if you can, but it’s not like they got sick on purpose just to spite you…

  6. Face masks have been part of Asian (or at least Japanese) culture since way before SARS. In Japan it is considered rude and filthy to be coughing, sneezing, having a runny nose and/or blowing your nose in public. So, they wear masks and have done so since at least the 1960s. All that said….

    My family was recently on a flight from Houston to Chicago and my wife and one daughter were in the row in front of me and my other daughter and I were center and window. The flight was full (it was Southwest) and here sits a middle-aged to older woman in the aisle seat (by my 8-year old). As the flight went on, the sneezing and coughing started from her and we could see that her nose was red from repeated clearing of it. Oh no, what to do!?! Well, there wasn’t much. I told my daughter not to put her hands anywhere near her mouth or eyes and I did the same. As soon as the flight concluded, the first stop was the bathroom to wash up thoroughly.

    Well, guess what? About 5 days later, my wife (who was in front of her) came down with a terrible case of the flu. Worse yet, she was on a business trip to the west coast when it hit and she had a miserable week. Thankfully, my kids and I were spared. But my poor wife is still miserable. I’m pretty sure she got it from that woman. And who knows how many other victims there were from Typhoid Mary there. Just sharing my story.

    What to do? It’s a tough question and I don’t pretend to have a nice, simple, Trump-esque answer. But it is most certainly one of the nastier pratfalls of flying. And people get sick from viruses caught during flight….all the time. So yes, this is a very real problem. All you can do is to be aware of the risk and wash your hands obsessively.

  7. One time I took the bus from DC to NYC and the woman next to me was coughing up a storm. I ended up getting severely sick as a result and was out of action for two weeks. I’m not sympathetic to people who get on planes and buses and proceed to infect the people around them. It is quite selfish. Yes they can say they have lives to live and couldn’t wait, but I had stuff to do too and because of this person I lost two weeks of productivity.

  8. One thing that might work is to open the air vent and redirect it downward in front of your face, so that you have a greater chance of breathing in the relatively germ-free air coming out of the vent. Washing your hands frequently and/or using alcohol wipes should also help. Also, don’t pick your nose. (Sorry for being gross, but I’m sure anyone who travels a lot has noticed that dry air on planes leads to dry nasal passages and an increased rate of nose-picking.)

  9. Take antiseptic cough drops to offer to your neighbour to limit the coughing and sneezing.
    For yourself take antiseptic wipes for all the surfaces onboard you are going to touch, plus hand sanitiser to use liberally. It may sound OTT, but it could save you a cold or a nasty dose of influenza.
    It’s not as if you don’t have time to do all that! I would also investigate the possibility of moving well away as a first option.

  10. Last time this happened I was stuck in the cattle car on a 5hr Qantas flight. Guy next to me starts hacking away, refused cough drop (I always travel with them). Fortunately another flyer had a broken IFE and was upgraded, so I was able to take his window seat.

    Heck I’ll take a window seat and broken IFE any day over sitting next to some inconsiderate sick ****

    It’s a real problem as I’m not sure the airline would let you change flights without penalty. Though you could play the safety card

  11. Another trick that was suggested is to stuff a bit of Vaseline up your nose, which not only keeps the dryness away, but possibly traps any foreign intruders.

  12. It’s all about the hands. Keep them away from your eyes, ears, nose and mouth as Donna said. Wash you hands. Wipe down the armrest, tray table or anything else you will touch with your hands and like in everyday life on the ground, keep washing them. Also, people who are sniffing, coughing or constantly blowing their nose may just have allergies.

  13. As was already said face masks were in use in Asia well before SARS and we would do well to adopt the idea that sick people should protect others (but in the US if you see someone with a face mask it is likely to be someone who is immune compromised and is protecting themselves from YOU) and therein is the solution!
    I always carry face masks with me and wear them onboard any trip over about 3 hours – helps tremendously with dry mouth, throat and on long trips I don’t wake up with a sore throat, Japanese airlines even give out “moisture” face masks (at least in 1st) that look like regular ones but have some special layer that does a better job.
    So besides washing your hands, etc, why not just carry some face masks with you? They weigh nothing – you can offer them to the sick person if you wish, but surely you can protect yourself.
    As for how well they’ll protect you, the normal ones provide some protection but to get the best protection you’d have to get N95 (I think that’s the number) they look a bit like painters masks but are rated high for microscopic protection.

  14. ANA has “moisture masks” or some such titled face mask on their flights. Almost everyone was wearing them. I started that on long hauls years ago because of germs and because it does prevent the dryness problem. Sleeping is much more comfortable. I am crazy about wiping down the area around my seat with antibacterial wipes. Never touch your face. Carry spare masks to offer to hacking people. As careful as we are, I can’t tell you the number of times we get respiratory illnesses when traveling. We now know the best way to get medical care in most countries. With domestic travel I roll the dice and don’t wear a mask. There are products that you swab the inside of your nose that I swear by. Look at a health food store for them. I have never gotten sick when I used them.

  15. Just because someone has a cough, it does not necessarily mean they are contagious. I have a cough from a lung issue, and I had to assure the gentleman sitting across the aisle from me on my flight last week that I was not sick. Thankfully, it was an almost empty flight, so he could feel safe that he wasn’t going to come in contact with me.

  16. Anyone who doesn’t get a flu shot can go to hell.
    Otherwise, yeah wash your hands, use purell if you’re eating, etc. Not much else you can do.

  17. When I lived as a child in Japan 1957-1961, many people wore face masks if they were even a little sick, and also to protect themselves in crowded situations. It was just a part of the culture to be considerate.
    Last summer after flying, 5 days later I developed pneumonia. I should have been more careful since I have RA and take a med that makes you more susceptible.
    So the next time I flew I got these great masks individually packaged. Soooo I was wearing one in a crowded airport, and some scary looking guy came up to me, and demanded to know why I was wearing a mask. I just told him I get sick easy, but I couldn’t believe someone could be so confrontational about a mask!

  18. @zippypam I saw someone wiping down everything on a recent flight- I’m sorry, but you are absolutely crazy for doing that. And you look absolutely ridiculous doing it. You should understand that not all bacteria is bad.

  19. @Brian you are entitled to your own opinions, sure. But i do not see a problem with someone wiping down the places they would touch. I dont remember ever having done so, but i might have, I always travel with wipes and I always wash my hands I and I try not to touch my face with my fingers. I think trying to wipes down areas for bacterial purposes is a waste of time, however if something looks particularly dirty I would prob do it..

  20. I swear by saline solution, not only to keep nasal passages moisturized, but also to cut down on the chance of contracting any airborne germs. Also, it helps to wear a scarf and use it as a makeshift mask (albeit this probably only helps from a psychological standpoint)…

  21. Had a BA TATL flight this weekend, and all 14 of us in F were coughing away with this respiratory plague that is going around. I seemed to have caught in Vegas a couple of weeks ago. It seems very airborne and difficult to avoid (I usually avoid most colds and flus, but everyone has this one it seems). This one is particularly bad in that cough drops and cough medicine are not very effective at suppressing the cough.

    I think it would help a lot if wearing masks became socially normal in the US.

  22. @Brian~ so how do you sort out the bad bacteria from the good in this context? You can’t, and don’t! By wiping down all surfaces you come into contact with especially IFE control and touchscreen you are also eliminating greasy and sticky residue. You are doing the airline a favor. How often do they clean it all~ never!

  23. There is very little chance of catching a disease from a fellow passenger. Germs require heat to live. The warmer the environment, the longer the germ can survive. Unfortunately some airline captains fail to follow proper protocol of maintaining a cool environment where people gather. You can reduce the likelihood of active germs reaching your body by fully opening your air vent and directing the air flow in front of your face. So long as you don’t lean your seat back, any germs from the passenger behind you will be interrupted by your seat back. The passengers to your side are projecting their germs forward into the sear back in front of them, and those germs are likely to die before bouncing back, particularly if you have set up a barrier of cold air. Remember heat is your enemy when trying to avoid germs and that the further away your head is from the source the better chance you have to not encounter active germs. The reason to keep your hand away from your face is that your own body heat allows germs that reach your hands to remain active far longer than is otherwise possible

  24. People will always be sick all around you- restaurants, buses, trains, offices, concerts. Planes are no different. We can’t start policing one over the others. Yes, I understand planes are more captive than most of those examples but the point stands. If someone has something dangerous and transmittable, then yeah, they shouldn’t fly. But otherwise people just have to deal with it. And I don’t think face masks would make much difference at all (

  25. @Chris — You know the flu shot last year was only 17% effective against the active flu strain that year, right? Not saying you shouldn’t get it, but it’s a crap shoot as to whether it will help or not in any given year.

  26. Hydration, hand washing, antibacterial gel and wipes, saline spray and/or Vaseline/Neosporin for the nose are all good practices. When it is imperative to stay well for an important meeting or in preparation to leave on a much deserved and anticipated vacation, I will use my “I Can Breathe” ( face mask with carbon filter. I don’t care how it looks. Recently I came across a company that has a scarf with a carbon filter ( I will be buying one. Life is too short to be ill! Sure would be nice if people would be considerate, responsible and accountable to protect others from their illnesses. The Japanese have it right!

  27. @Gary asks: What do y’all do to stay healthy

    I drink copious amounts of adult beverages. It has been scientifically proven that if you keep your BAC above a certain level and NEVER let it go below that level, the germs and viruses cannot survive.

    Helps to be semi-retired and having a driver.

  28. As a Travel Medicine Physician, I have to agree with Estelle and Bill, that the best thing to do is what the Japanese and Chinese frequently do: wear a face mask when travelling in close quarters with sick people. The masks, worn properly, are 80% effective in keeping out viral and bacterial germs. Flu shots are a good idea, but <10% of moderately severe viral illness is flu and the vaccine protects against only flu (and only the three strains chosen by the CDC that year).. Fortunately, transmission of disease on aircraft is lower than most people think (usually less than 1%), though one study of SARS showed a 20% transmission rate on one flight.
    Floyd Russak, MD
    Concierge Internal Medicine/Travel Medicine
    Denver, Colorado

  29. Lol where are all these people finding so many airlines with old planes that still use personal controllable air vents?

    And, for anyone who may have seen someone wiping down everything on a plane recently, it was probably me. I do it because 1, I do not trust people with the way many people think and many of the things I’ve seen people do that they believe is acceptable; 2, I like to make it clear to people around me that I don’t take my health and time and money spent to accomplish what I am traveling to accomish as a joke, so they get the hint to act more responsible, considerate, appropriate and respectful when it comes to the amount of nasty behaviors they want to exhibit with complete disregard to those around them. The workplace alone is a good place to discover how little people who are sick even care or think about others…

    Anyone who has a problem with me wiping down everything and protecting myself can either move to another seat or exchange information and offer to lend me the amount I paid for my ticket which I will gladly keep unspent and refund if I do not get sick (cold, flu, pink eye, etc.) during my trip after doing things the way they say I should. Otherwise, I will do whatever is necessary to protect myself and my time and money and goals, etc. by sanitizing whatever I feel is necessary to protect myself and whoever I will be associating with during my trip.

    If I get sick BEFORE I board then I will be willing to change my flight and pay the penalty (especially if it is international) instead of knowingly choosing to disrupt or inconvenience others, make others feel uncomfortable (or potentially destroy a person’s dreams that they worked hard to accomplish, only to finally get opportunity to do it and ending up sick). My other option if I’m sick but know I have self control over my sneezing and coughing is to control my coughing and sneezing, and also not yapping my mouth to let the germs out, which does happen when cold/flu, etc. affected people talk.

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