Everyone is trying to avoid getting the swine flu this season, but when you’re traveling in tight quarters – like on an airplane, which many of us do over the holidays – it can be hard to hide from the germs. Dr. Julie Gerberding is former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – the CDC. She told CNN that this happened to her on a flight recently from San Francisco to Georgia. The woman in the next seat was on her cell phone saying, “I just KNOW I have the swine flu!”

Gerberding says unfortunately, if someone sitting near you has the flu, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get it. Flu is very transmissible. You’re most likely to catch it from the people sitting in your row and in the row behind you. Even if you’re in tip-top shape, chances are you have no immunity to the H1N1 virus, since it’s so new. So, what can you do to protect yourself?

  • In Gerberding’s case, her first step was to point the air vent in the ceiling toward the sick woman. That helped blow the germs away from her.
  • She then pivoted her body away from the sick woman. Sitting in the aisle seat made this easier.
  • Although Gerberding didn’t do this, she realized later that she should have approached a flight attendant and asked them to offer the woman a mask. Masks are very effective at preventing illness if used properly – because if the person coughs or sneezes, it traps their saliva droplets, and even blocks microscopic droplets in contaminated breath. It’s perfectly acceptable for a flight attendant to ask a sick person to wear one. If they refuse, ask if YOU can have one to wear.
  • Another helpful tip is to wipe surfaces - like arm rests, tray tables, seat belt buckles, vent controls and other surfaces - with something like Clorox Wipes. Even if you’re not sitting next to a sick person, the passenger sitting in your seat on a previous flight may have been carrying H1N1 germs – and you’re at risk if you touch a contaminated surface. So bring your own wipes and don’t be afraid to use them.