How to avoid getting sick on a plane — and in general — as coronavirus, flu and common cold spread

A fast-spreading outbreak of a new coronavirus (2019 nCoV) that started in China has made its way to Thailand, Japan and the United States. In many cases, the virus has spread via travelers flying internationally.

The spread of viruses can often be gravely exacerbated by the spread of germs in air travel, as was the case with the SARS (another type of coronavirus) outbreak that began in China before spreading to more than a dozen countries in 2002-2003.

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The CDC has deemed the risk from the 2019 nCoV virus to Americans to be low, but the agency is urging people to practice proper hygiene (at all times, not just during air travel) to help mitigate the virus’ ability to spread.

Here are some tips from the CDC on how to stay healthy while traveling by plane — and in general — to limit your risk of contracting a cold, the flu or the the 2019 nCoV. The CDC recommends that travelers should:

  • Avoid contact with sick people.
  • For those traveling to/in Wuhan — avoid animals (alive or dead), animal markets, and products that come from animals (such as uncooked meat).
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
  • Carry hand sanitizer with you. The CDC recommends at least 60 percent alcohol concentration to maximize effectiveness.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Keep the air vents above your seat open during your flight to improve ventilation, ideally pointing them away from your face.
  • Wipe down arm rests and your tray table with sanitary wipes, and avoid touching the handle on the bathroom doors, if possible, by using a tissue or sanitary wipe.
  • Bring a face mask and wear it if you’re sitting next to someone coughing or sneezing.
  • Sit in a window seat and don’t get up until the flight is over, if possible.
  • If you are seated next to someone sick, ask a flight attendant if it’s possible to move. Passengers sitting within two seats or a row of a passenger with a respiratory illness have an 80 percent higher risk of getting sick.

The CDC’s most important recommendation is to avoid traveling when you are sick. The agency recommends staying home for a minimum of 24 hours after a fever has subsided.

Facing nasty fees to change your flight? The CDC recommends buying travel insurance when you book a ticket, but if it’s already too late, you should call the airline’s customer service and politely explaining the situation. Offering a note from your doctor and informing the airline that you are a carrier of airborne illness could potentially land you a one-time waiver to change your flight.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, and there are several known strains that can infect people. Most of these strains are known to cause only mild respiratory disease, such as the common cold, but two identified strains — severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) — have caused severe disease. Both of these strains have been ruled out as the cause of the current outbreak.

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In light of the 2019 nCoV outbreak’s quick-spreading start, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are implementing enhanced health screenings to detect ill travelers coming to the United States on direct or connecting flights from Wuhan, China.

Over the next few weeks, screenings for 2019 nCoV will be carried out at three U.S. airports that receive the most travelers from Wuhan, China: JFK International Airport in New York, Los Angeles International Airport and San Francisco International Airport.