Best Way To Defend Against Airplane Germs

Fact: Flying will expose you to germs.

According to one study, travellers are up to 100 times more likely to contract a cold while flying. But, instead of downing powdery vitamin concoctions and slathering on a pound of hand sanitizer, it turns out the best medicine to fight a plane cold may simply be getting some sleep. Scientists are still learning how proper sleep contributes to staying healthy. A new study published in February in the Journal of Experimental Medicine asserts that T cells, a type of white blood cell, are “critical to the body’s immune response,” and that they are better equipped to do so in individuals who get enough sleep.

The researchers looked into a group of signalling molecules known as “Gαs-coupled receptor agonists.” These molecules, the team explained, can suppress the immune system. Whether or not they also inhibit the ability of T cells to fight infections was unknown previous to the study. To see how the two interact, the researchers took samples from one set of volunteers who got a good night’s sleep and from another group that stayed up all night. Without getting too deep into the biology here, the researchers essentially found that the T cells taken from sleeping volunteers showed significantly higher levels of “integrin activation than T cells taken from wakeful subjects.” This means, those cells were better able to do their jobs at attacking cells infected with a virus to stave off illness. “Our findings show that sleep has the potential to enhance the efficiency of T cell responses, which is especially relevant in light of the high prevalence of sleep disorders and conditions characterized by impaired sleep, such as depression, chronic stress, aging, and shift work,” lead author Luciana Besedovsky said in a statement.

So, what does this mean for you? It means on your next red-eye or international flight you simply must shut off your television, close your computer, and maybe throw on some noise-cancelling headphones to make sure you get some rest. That way, your own T cells can go to work protecting you from your seatmate’s cough, sneezes, and grumbles. Want to get a good night’s sleep on a plane? Try packing a “sleep kit,” which comes with headphones, a sleep mask, and a blanket to keep you warm and cosy no matter how far you’re flying. This way, you can wake up refreshed and healthy at your final destination.

Credit: Stacey Leasca for Travel + Leisure, 21 February 2019.