How to Protect Your Health During Holiday Air Travel

UT Health Austin infectious disease specialist shares tips on how to prevent the spread of illness when traveling home for the holidays

Reviewed by: Rama Thyagarajan, MD
Written by: Lauren Schneider

A couple wearing surgical masks tow their luggage through an airport.

Air travel passenger numbers are closer than ever to pre-pandemic levels this holiday season. The number of travelers who pass through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints daily is only slightly smaller than figures from the same days in 2019. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that cases of COVID-19, the flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are on the rise, creating what some experts have termed a “tripledemic” of respiratory infection.

“The risk of infection on airplanes is elevated because travelers are placed in such high proximity for several hours,” explains Rama Thyagarajan, MD, a board-certified infectious disease specialist in UT Health Austin’s Infectious Disease Clinic. “There are several precautions travels can take to avoid respiratory illness this holiday season.”

Catch Up (On Vaccines)

“While there is not yet a vaccine for RSV, the vaccines for COVID-19 and the flu can help protect individuals from serious illness and hospitalizations, especially those individuals who are over the age of 60 or have certain health conditions, such as diabetes or heart and lung disease,” notes Dr. Thyagarajan. “Individuals who are not up to date on these vaccinations can contact their local pharmacy or primary care provider for more information prior to traveling.”

Learn more about the latest CDC guidelines and recommendations regarding COVID-19 and flu vaccinations.

<br>Back Up (From Others)

“Large gatherings still pose a risk of infection,” warns Dr. Thyagarajan. “Airplanes tend to have better air filtration and ventilation than other modes of transportation that place passengers close together, such as buses or trains, but this does not account for the long periods of time air travelers spend in busy airports. While these spaces are bound to be crowded during the busy holiday season, travelers can mitigate transmission of airborne disease by staying home when sick, covering their sneezes and coughs, and staying away from people known or suspected of being sick with respiratory illness.”

Mask Up

“While many airlines and airports, including Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, have made masks optional, masks remain a useful tool for preventing COVID-19, RSV, flu, and several other respiratory viruses,” shares Dr. Thyagarajan. “N95 masks are the most effective, but individuals who cannot tolerate the N95 mask can opt for a well-fitting surgical mask.”

Graphic illustrating 3 steps to properly fit a face mask. Step 1. Wash your hands before you put on your mask. Step 2. Place your mask over your nose and mouth and secure it under your chin. Step 3. Try to fit your mask snugly against the sides of your face.

Wash Up

“Frequent and thorough hand washing can also help prevent the spread of many illnesses,” says Dr. Thyagarajan. “Given the high rates of respiratory infection this season, I would suggest wiping down shared surfaces, such as tray tables, to reduce the spread of germs from one person to the next.”

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About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.