Tips to avoid airport germs | UW Medicine | Newsroom

Popular Thanksgiving travel weekend

An estimated 31 million passengers are expected to funnel through the nation’s airports during the week of Thanksgiving.

A bit of advice as you head to the airport to sit in a terminal or plane: Use hand sanitizer. Or do it the old-fashioned way and wash those hands. A lot.

“I think whether you’re stuck on the plane, or in a terminal, hand hygiene is king,” said Dr. Paul Pottinger, director of the Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine Clinic at UW Medicine.

And you might want to start slathering on the sanitizer while you walk in the terminal, but before you reach the TSA line.

A study by Finnish and British researchers, published in the BioMed Infectious Diseases Journal last year, reported that the airport surfaces with the highest virus or bacterial concentrations were found in the bins in which you put your shoes, clothes and other accoutrements before security screening. Swabs taken off the bins at the Helsinki airport during the 2015-2016 flu season showed that four of eight bin swab samples contained rhinovirus or adenovirus, which cause the common cold.

Where did the researchers find the least disease-causing viruses and microbes? Airport toilet seats.

“The germiest parts of the airport are the same as the germiest parts of the rest of the world – anything people touch,” Pottinger said, noting that most people generally steer clear of handling toilet seats.

Most germs can live on surfaces for up to a few hours or even a few days, he said. The germs usually are transferred person to person when they touch a surface, and then touch their face, eyes or mouths.

This year, some airports are considering using bins with an antibacterial surface to combat germ transmission, but until such bins are widespread, here are a few common sense tips:

Pottinger advises using antibacterial wipes on your airline seat’s armrest and fold-down tray. Other ways to avoid an unwanted travel bug are to wash your hands regularly and get an annual flu shot, he added. Finally, as winter storms appear poised to slam southern Oregon and California, as well as the the Midwest, prepare for your plane to be late and be ready to apply the same sanitizing protocol for the seats and surfaces you might wish to sit or sleep on during a flight delay.

If you’re stuck in a plane on the tarmac due to a delay, having a face mask handy might be worth the investment, said Deborah Fuller, a microbiologist with the University of Washington School of Medicine. Fuller also suggests drinking more water, because it’s easier to catch a bug if you become dehydrated in that dry, pressurized cabin air. Pottinger added that travelers might want to bring their own snacks onboard the plane.

“Everything you touch has been touched by somebody before,” Pottinger added. “That’s OK. Most of the germs there are harmless, and some might even be helpful. But once in awhile they can make you sick. So don’t panic, don’t worry, just clean your hands.”

— UW Medicine | Newsroom: Barbara Clements:, 206-221-6706

Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in Northwest

AG Ferguson wants to require law enforcement statewide to report all uses of deadly force

Report to Legislature recommends centralized, easily accessible statewide website on incidents

Stay local with summer travel plans | State Department of Health

Officials want people to limit cross-state travel to help slow spread of COVID-19

Public and private universities, colleges, technical schools, apprenticeship programs and similar schools and programs may resume general instruction, including in-person classes and lectures, starting Aug. 1. Pictured: The University of Washington-Bothell campus. File photo
Universities and colleges may reopen in fall, governor says

His order requires masks and physical distancing, among other measures, to help prevent infections.

A new measure from the King County Council could increase flexibility for businesses in rural areas of King County. File photo
County measure would increase flexibility for businesses in rural areas

Staff report Legislation the King County Council passed June 23 could lead… Continue reading

Changes coming to Port of Seattle Police Department

Hiring practices, commitment to diversity, use of force

During a recent training, South King Fire and Rescue members at Station 62 wear personal protective gear, which includes face masks, eye protection, gloves and gowns. Courtesy photo
Governor orders statewide use of face coverings in public

Jay Inslee says that until there is a vaccine, it’s the best weapon to stop the spread of COVID-19.

File photo/
Renton man pleads guilty to one of state’s largest workers’ comp scams

The delivery driver was still working under his own name while receiving L&I pension, and owes the state almost $340,000.

Courtesy image
Task force will tackle issues of racial justice, police reform

Inslee names civil rights activists, pastors, and cops to panel that may forge ideas for new laws

King County Board of Health declares racism a crisis

Racism was declared a public health crisis by King County’s Board of… Continue reading

State Capitol Building, Olympia, Washington. File photo
Tax collections tumble as state braces for huge budget hole

Inslee cancels pay raises for some execs and orders furloughs for workers as special session looms.

Inslee announces updated religious, faith-based services guidance

Modified Phase 1, Phase 2 allow indoor services at 25% capacity or 200 people, whichever is less

Stock image
Campgrounds to reopen in 22 Washington counties

Campgrounds in counties actively in Phase 2 of the reopening plan will begin to welcome visitors June 1, state says.