Airplanes often feel like a flying petri dish, and that was particularly true last week, when three different incoming flights at two U.S. airports were held on the tarmac for sick passengers.
First, a 500-person Emirates flight from Dubai to New York City’s JFK airport was quarantined with passengers complaining of flu-like symptoms. The next day, two flights coming in from Amsterdam and Paris were halted at the Philadelphia airport with the same affliction. The news prompted the Centers for Disease Control to remind passengers about the importance of getting a flu shot.
“People who are sick should protect themselves — and others — by not traveling,” the CDC said in a statement.
Thankfully, there’s no need to panic, says Dr. Travis Stork, a former ER physician, host of The Doctors and a member of PEOPLE’s Health Squad. Rather, a little common sense goes a long way.
“It’s important not to live your life in fear of this reality,” he says. “The key is to be germ aware, not a germaphobe.”
Stork says the first step is to ready yourself for flying with healthy habits.
“It’s important to get your immune system in good shape before you travel,” he says. “Rest up in advance so you don’t arrive to your flight exhausted and stressed, eat healthily and stay hydrated leading up to travel.”
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And when it’s time to pick your seats for an upcoming flight, it may help to go for a window. Stork says a new study found that those in the aisle get the most exposure to germs and sick passengers and crewmembers.
Once on board, pull out the hand wipes.
“Take a moment to wipe down your tray table, arm rests and other hard surfaces,” Stork says. “Your risk of being exposed to the cold or flu virus is often the luck of the draw. When it comes down to it, you have no idea who sat in your seat before you. They could very easily have been sick and that’s why you have to assume your seat area might be contaminated.”
- For more on the sick flights, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday
It also helps to open your air vent.
“I usually point my vent in front of my face when I travel, to keep the air circulating and any potential airborne germs away from my face,” Stork says.
If you end up seated next to a sick passenger, don’t be afraid to ask the flight attendant to switch seats.
“Flight attendants are used to these kinds of requests and they will most likely happily seat you elsewhere, assuming other seats are available,” he says. “If you’re stuck, open your air vent and just do your best to avoid having your face directly in line with any coughing or sneezing.”
And keep in mind that staying germ-free on flights goes both ways. If you have the flu or any other serious illness, it’s best to avoid travel, Stork says.
Once you’re off the flight, maintain your healthy habits.
“Time zone differences, the stressors of travel and a new environment can be hard on your body and your immune system, so keeping it as strong as possible is important — especially if you have been exposed to a virus during flight,” he says.
But overall, remember that we’re constantly at risk of being exposed to infectious germs, Stork says, “whether you’re traveling on an airplane, a bus, a subway or just walking through the grocery store.” Your immune system is built to tackle them, and that — combined with a few healthy habits — will keep you protected.