These are the exact germs you come in contact with on a plane and what they can do to your body

This article was updated on August 16, 2021. 

As Covid-19 cases continue to climb in the U.S. – the tally as of Sunday was 130,800 new cases per day – people may be reconsidering flying. And this research on top of the case numbers may make you never want to fly again.

Research from Auburn University, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and viruses can live on armrests, window shades, headrests tray tables, toilet handles and all the other things you touch on a plane.

The germiest part of the plane

It turns out you should be less concerned about that person sitting next to you and worry more about making contact with the seat pocket. The study found that if you make contact with an object on a plane you risk infection with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, MRSA, or the E. coli O157:H7 gut bug. This can actually lead to kidney failure.

The research was conducted using old parts of a Delta airplane. Kiril Vaglenov, a post-doctoral fellow in materials science who led the study, and his team rubbed the airplane parts with MRSA and E. coli bacteria to mimic human sweat. They found that MRSA lasted 168 hours on a cloth seatback pocket and E.coli lived for 96 hours on an armrest. In other words, these guys are earning their miles.

In addition to the armrest and seatback pocket, you should also worry about the headrest.  Microbiologist Jason Tetro, author of The Germ Filestold Well & Good, “Airplanes have their own microbiome and the most common types are those from human skin, which isn’t surprising considering we’re all constantly shedding bacteria.

As for the germiest place? It’s the headrest, where you’ll not only find bacteria, but also yeasts and molds.” He continued, “If it’s a short-haul, you may not have to worry about it, as you’ll have the same exposure as you might in an office building. But as the flights get longer, the microbes on your skin can grow and that can get a bit smelly,” says Tetro. “If you do happen to pick up bacteria or fungi that’s not your own, this may lead to itchiness and bumps on the skin and scalp. ”

The airport is gross too

But wait, it gets worse. In addition to the plane germs, you need to worry about the airport itself. Pretty much from the moment you walked in. According to InsuranceQuotes.com, the kiosks have more than 1,475 times the amount of bacteria than your house’s toilet seat.

To determine this the research team conducted 18 tests across six surfaces from three major U.S. airports and airline flights.  They found that the average self check-in screen had 253,857 CFU (colony-forming units) which is more than 11 times the average CFU of an airline gate armrest and 13 times the average CFU of an airport water fountain button. In other words, you should be wearing latex gloves and a face mask when you go to print your boarding pass.

When you are at the kiosk the most common type of germs you will come in contact with are gram-positive cocci (organisms that can create an infection consisting of, containing, or discharging pus), gram-positive rods (probiotic bacteria that can also be pathogenic) and yeast. Check out more of the germs that are all over the airport in the infographic below.

What you can do about it

So on the flight itself there is not much you can do but the minute you have access to one, take a shower. Otherwise, you risk bringing these bacteria into your hotel or wherever you are staying. “If it’s a short haul, you may not have to worry about it, as you’ll have the same exposure as you might in an office building. But as the flights get longer, the microbes on your skin can grow and that can get a bit smelly. If you do happen to pick up bacteria or fungi that’s not your own, this may lead to itchiness and bumps on the skin and scalp,” Tetro said.

Other simple tips to practice while flying to protect yourself from germs?

  1. Wear a mask
  2. Wash your hands before and after the flight (and during)
  3. Use hand-sanitizer
  4. Use a disenfectant to wipe down your seat and tray area