Protect Your Health During Holiday Air Travel

Flying home for the holidays? Rama Thyagarajan, MD, shares tips to prevent the spread of illness on the way

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.

According to Rama Thyagarajan, MD, board-certified infectious disease specialist in UT Health Austin’s Infectious Disease Clinic, the risk of infection on airplanes is elevated because travelers are placed in such high proximity for several hours. She recommends travelers take the following “common-sense precautions” 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 protect everyone from serious illness and hospitalizations especially people more than 60 and anyone with health issues like diabetes, heart and lung disease etc., illnesses, says 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.

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 buses or trains, other modes of transportation that place passengers close together, 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 to be sick with respiratory illness.

Mask up

Many airlines and airports, including Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, have made masks optional in recent months, but masks remain a useful tool for stopping COVID-19 as well as RSV, flu and several other respiratory viruses. Dr. Thyagarajan says that 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.
A well-fitted mask optimizes your protection against airborne illness.

Clean up

Frequent and thorough hand washing can prevent the spread of many illnesses. Given the high rates of respiratory infection this season, Dr. Thyagarajan also suggests wiping down shared surfaces such as tray tables. “Since these germs can spread from one person to the next through surfaces, this extra help may reduce the chance of getting sick.” The CDC recommends cleaning products that have been registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a disinfectant.

Read up

Dr. Thyagarajan recommends travelers consult the CDC website to learn more about preventing respiratory illness.

To view all resources related to COVID-19 at UT Health Austin, visit our COVID-19 Updates page.

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.