4 of the germiest places in airports and on flights

Considering the millions of people who move about in airports and on airplanes every day, it’s no surprise that these travel hubs may make you a bit more cautious about germs.

Most germs you come across every day aren’t dangerous unless you have an immune deficiency or an open wound. Bacteria and viruses surround us, and many are harmless. But there are some spots that lots of people come into contact with that you might want to keep in mind while traveling, just to be safe.

We rounded up a few studies and experiments to point out four germy spots in airports and on flights that you might want to give a quick wipe-down before touching. Check them out below.

 

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4 germiest places in an airport and on planes
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4 germiest places in an airport and on planes

The Tray Table

In 2015, travel calculation site Travel Math sent a microbiologist to collect 26 samples from different surfaces in five airports and on four flights. The tray table on the back of cabin seats tested highest for bacteria, with 2,155 colony-forming units per square inch.

For reference, the lavatory flush button had 265 colony-forming units per square inch. Another spot that beat out the flush button? The overhead air vents, which had 285 colony-forming units per square inch.

The microbiologist from the Travel Math study did find that all 26 samples tested negative for fecal coliforms like E. coli. However, in a 2017 interview with Time, Dr. Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, said he’s tested tray tables on flights that hosted cold viruses, norovirus and the bacteria MRSA.

Water Fountain Buttons

Travel Math found that in the airport, water fountain buttons took the crown for the germiest spot, with 1,240 colony-forming units per square inch, while the bathroom stall locks tested for a surprising 70 colony-forming units per square inch. The Travel Math team pointed out that this may be a result of cleaning crews having regular cleaning schedules for bathrooms (for good reason), but not other areas, such as the water fountain. 

In 2012, Gerba showed how germy water fountains can be in a study in which he partnered with Kimberly-Clark Professional and The Healthy Workplace Project to test samples from office buildings. They found that 23 percent of the water fountain buttons tested had high levels of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, a molecule helpful for testing for contamination.

Your Seat On The Plane

In 2014, researchers from Auburn University proved in a two-year study that bacteria can thrive on flights for several days. A major airline carrier sent researchers material from common items such as window shades, plastic tray tables and seat pockets, which researchers first sterilized before adding bacteria like MRSA and E. coli. The researchers simulated temperature and humidity levels common on a commercial flight to see how long the bacteria would survive. 

The bacteria lived the longest on cabin seat material. MRSA survived for 168 hours, or seven days, on the seat-back pocket material, and E. coli lived for 96 hours, or four days, on the armrest material. The research was not meant to be “alarmist,” the team noted, but a helpful resource for airlines. 

TSA Bins

In 2014, journalist Jeff Rossen and his investigative team took samples of surfaces in airports and planes as they hopped on three cross-country flights on different major airlines. Tested by microbiologists, the samples showed that TSA bins are particularly germy. One of them tested positive for “fecal matter at levels high enough to make people sick.” This isn’t all that surprising, considering people place their shoes in the bins. 

Akron-Canton Airport in Ohio started combating the spread of bacteria in TSA bins in September 2017 by partnering with a local hospital to use trays lined with self-cleaning orange mats and handles.

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It’s important to remember that there is room for error in studies and experiments and that many airports are already revamping their cleaning to-do lists, as USA Today reported, to include automatic floor-scrubbing machines and frequent wipe-downs of kiosks.

The reason bacteria may last so long on flights is because some cleaning crews don’t get enough time to properly sanitize the cabin. In February, The New York Times interviewed a cleaning crew member who said the workers have limited time to clean the plane before more passengers hop on.

“To clean, we need 10 to 15 minutes, but they give us seven or six,” said Sameer Yousef, who at the time was a lead cabin cleaner for a team that cleaned airplanes from United. “It’s a very big pressure for us. They don’t give us more people to help.”

To make travel easier (and cleaner) for you, wash your hands frequently. If you’re really in a bind, turn to a stash of baby wipes or some hand sanitizer ― yes, TSA should allow it as long it’s in a travel-sized container that’s 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less. Happy traveling!

RELATED: Foods you should always avoid at the airport 

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Foods you should never buy at the airport
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Foods you should never buy at the airport

Soft pretzels

“A big old soft pretzel is not a meal,” says registered dietitian Marjorie Nolan Cohn, owner of MNC Nutrition in Philadelphia. Those fluffy carbs might smell enticing, but carbo-loading before a long flight will leave your tummy rumbling again by takeoff. Look for something with protein and fiber that will keep you satisfied until you land, or better yet, pack a meal from home. Nolan Cohn recommends making a sandwich at home to save money or packing leftovers like pasta salad or grilled chicken in an old, washed plastic container, such as a cottage cheese tub.

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Guilty pleasures

Try not to lump your waiting time at the airport in with the “treat mentality” of the rest of your vacation, says registered dietitian nutritionist Libby Mills, founder of Dig In Eat Up. “Even though it might be the kickoff to vacation, you want to save those calories for something unique when you arrive,” she says. Skip the specialty coffee drink and stick with plain coffee if you need a caffeine fix, or leave room for ice cream at the beach instead of gobbling a bag of cookies at the airport. Don’t miss these other 15 secrets to staying healthy on vacation.

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Parfaits

You’ve seen yogurt touted time and time again as one of the healthiest snacks you can get, thanks to its satiating protein. But that fruit and yogurt parfait isn’t the healthy and fresh choice that it seems. “Yogurt has its halo over it as a healthy food, and obviously it is, but in context of what additives are in it,” says Nolan Cohn. By the time you turn plain yogurt into a sugary flavored yogurt topped with granola and fruit (which, unlike fresh berries, is full of added sugar), it isn’t a healthy choice anymore, she says. Skip the parfait and choose a regular yogurt from the fridge, or try these 19 nutritionist-approved travel snacks you can buy anywhere.

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Sugary yogurts

Even yogurts that aren’t covered in granola or chocolate chips can be a stealthy sugar bomb. Fruit-on-the-bottom varieties are “not really fruit—it’s more like jelly,” says Nolan Cohn, and the dessert-like flavors and toppings can have almost as much sugar as the treats they’re named after. A cup of unflavored Greek yogurt is a safe bet, but if you need something less tart, vanilla varieties tend to have a bit less sugar than the fruity ones, she says. Try these other 13 healthy tricks for actually losing weight on vacation.

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Granola bars

Granola bars are often designed to look like a smart choice, but there’s more than meets the eye. “Some are like candy bars in a really strategic marketing package to make it look like something way healthier than it is,” says Nolan Cohn. Granola bars can be packed with added sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and other decidedly unhealthy ingredients, especially if they’re covered in a waxy (and melty) coating. That said, a shelf-stable, portable snack is convenient when you need to take the hunger off during your travels, so hunt down an option with 12 or fewer grams of sugar, she says. Check out these other 10 ways to eat healthy on vacation.

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Coffee

A cheap, low-calorie cup of coffee might seem like the perfect treat while you’re waiting, but you might regret it once you’re seated. “Coffee has caffeine and can agitate the nerves, which might not make for the most relaxing flight,” says Mills. Plus, if coffee goes through you fast, you could end up making multiple bathroom dashes, she points out. Try a calming herbal tea instead, Mills suggests.

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Large bar tab

While a glass of wine as you wait for your flight won’t do much harm for most people, you’ll want to keep your drinking to a minimum. Not only could it dehydrate you before an already dehydrating plane ride, but alcohol isn’t good for deep sleep. You might crash quick, but the alcohol will wake you up and keep you out of deep REM sleep as your liver works it out. “A less restful trip, especially if you’re going overseas, may be counterproductive to enjoying yourself fully when you arrive,” says Mills.

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Double-decker sandwiches

You might not have too many choices at a quick-grab sandwich station, but keep your calories in check by avoiding excessive fillings, says Mills. “If it has triple layers of meat or bread, that’s a tipoff that you’re getting triple servings,” she says. “‘Crispy,’ breaded,’ and ‘fried’ … are words on a menu that are tipoffs of an extra serving of carbohydrates, plus the extra fat.” 

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Water bottles

You might not want to rely on the bottled water from the airport terminal—and not just because of its sky-high prices. Normally we’d never discourage some good-for-you hydration, but hear us out if you have a small bladder. “You’re guzzling water before getting on the plane, then sharing a toilet with how many people?” says Nolan Cohn. Because hydration is important, especially when you’re stuck in a dry plane cabin, she recommends sipping extra water the night and morning before your flight so you aren’t dehydrated when you board. Especially if your flight is more than a couple hours, though, don’t ignore your thirst in the name of avoiding the bathroom, she says.

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Anything your stomach isn't used to

When you’re about to sit in close quarters for hours on end, you’ll want to avoid foods that don’t tend to sit well with your digestive system. Steer clear of foods that normally might upset your stomach, such as certain types of fiber or greasy foods. “A hamburger and French fries or fried chicken before you get on a plane might not be the best idea,” says Nolan Cohn. “They have a higher potential for triggering diarrhea or GI issues.”

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