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10 Preboarding Secrets to Staying Healthy When You Fly

By , Caring.com senior editor
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Staying healthy when you fly starts with being well prepared. Here are ten preboarding secrets, culled from frequent fliers, on what to do to protect yourself from colds, flu, and other ills.

1. Carry an empty water bottle through security.

The chances of reliable, frequent beverage service aren't high these days, unless you're lucky enough to fly business class. Yet getting and staying hydrated before and during your flight is the best way to protect yourself against getting sick. That's because lack of humidity in the pressurized cabin dries out mucous membranes, making it harder for your system to flush out germs.

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What to do: Although you can't bring liquids through security, you can bring an empty bottle. Fill it at the water fountain as soon as you're through, and then drink up and hydrate before you fly -- and during the flight. Once on the plane, don't be shy about asking the attendant to fill your bottle for you. Even if they're not coming through often with the cart, there's water in the back.

2. Use the restroom before boarding -- with caution.

Most people know not to touch a public toilet seat any more than necessary, but it's less well known that flushing also transmits germs. And the closer you stand to the toilet, the more you're in the "line of fire." Researchers studying this problem measured the microorganisms in the air and on nearby surfaces after the first and subsequent flushes and found that "large numbers of microorganisms persisted on the toilet bowl surface and in the bowl water, which were disseminated into the air by further flushes."

What to do: Use a public restroom before you board and onboard restrooms as infrequently as possible, since it's impossible to stand more than a couple of feet away. Close the lid before flushing, using a paper towel between your hand and the lid and handle. And wash your hands thoroughly after flushing, using a paper towel to turn off the faucet.

3. Prevent dry eyes.

Studies show that lack of humidity in the enclosed space of the airplane cabin is one of the primary reasons for the higher risk of getting sick while flying. When your eyes are dry, it's more tempting to rub them, but touching your eyes is one of the primary means of transmitting cold and flu viruses. If you have germs on your hands, they can travel through the tear ducts to the nasopharynx at the back of the throat, where cold viruses do their damage.

What to do: Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly and avoid touching your eyes. If you wear contact lenses, remove them before boarding (after washing your hands) and wear your glasses on the plane. Never let yourself fall asleep with your lenses in, as your eyes will become even drier that way.

4. Pack a blanket and pillow.

Few airlines provide blankets anymore, and the ones they do offer can harbor germs. In fact, during the H1N1 flu scare, several airlines removed all blankets and pillows from flights as a precaution against cold and flu transmission.

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What to do: Carry a light, foldable blanket or shawl in your carry-on, or dress in warm layers. Keep a neck pillow in your carry-on, too; if space is an issue, purchase an inflatable one. Using your own pillow not only helps you sleep germ-free but can also save your back and neck from pain. If conserving space is a priority, bring your own pillowcase and put it over the pillow provided.

5. Eat a healthy meal before you board.

Last year LSG Sky Chefs, a Denver-based airline caterer that provides 405 million meals a year worldwide for more than 300 airlines, was cited for health and safety violations. The deadly bacteria listeria (recall the outbreak involving contaminated cantaloupes in the summer of 2011) was detected in samples from a kitchen floor and cockroaches, ants, and flies -- both alive and dead -- were found in the facility. LSG Sky Chefs wasn't alone; the FDA has found unsanitary and unsafe conditions in many of the catering operations that provide food to airlines in the last two years, according to a USA Today survey of inspection reports.

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What to do: Bring your own food, or choose healthful alternatives at airport restaurants. Luckily, airports all over the country have been adding restaurants with a healthy focus, and even standard fast-food joints are offering healthy choices. Choose dishes with plenty of vegetables and lean meat. As a bonus, you'll sleep better after a good meal.