Being in an airport typically comes with a few experiences: frustration bubbling up in your soul, eating some so-so food, and dealing with a whole lot of germs. “It’s not any different than when you’re in the mall or the subway—you’re going to get exposed to a lot of different things,” Amesh Adalja, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University, tells SELF. “The common sense of washing your hands a lot goes a long way.”
Washing your hands properly (which means rubbing them together vigorously with soap and water for at least 20 seconds) can help ward off illnesses like the common cold and the flu, as well as other infections.
Disclaimer, though: The list below is not meant to make you terrified of germs. It's normal to encounter a ton of bacteria all the time, and they're often harmless. It's pathogens you need to worry about, because those are disease-causing microorganisms like E. coli bacteria and influenza viruses. Now, since airports and airplanes are teeming with people from all over the world every day, there's a chance that there could be some pathogens floating around on surfaces that you're more than likely going to touch. Washing your hands can reduce your risk of bringing those pathogens into your body.
“People are carrying pathogens from all over the world, so it’s more likely you’ll be exposed to something that you haven’t encountered before,” Tara C. Smith, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University, tells SELF. To try to stay safe, wash your hands after touching these eight things at the airport (and on the airplane itself).
1. Any sort of door knob or handle
Whether you pushed a revolving door to get into the airport or grabbed a handle on the airport shuttle, you should wash your hands ASAP. (Honestly, this goes for touching doorknobs and handles in any public spaces, Dr. Adalja says.) The general rule is that if you’re touching it, a lot of other people have, too, which can expose you to germs that could potentially get you sick.
Of course, when you’re making a beeline for your flight, it’s not always convenient (or even possible) to pause at the bathroom every time you touch something germy. “I carry a small vial of alcohol-based hand sanitizer for times when I can’t access soap and water for handwashing,” Dr. Smith says. Hand sanitizer doesn’t kill as many germs as washing your hands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but it’s better than nothing. For maximum effectiveness, the CDC recommends choosing a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
2. Escalator handrails
Dr. Adalja identifies escalator handrails as one of the most germ-ridden places in airports since so many people hold onto them for safety purposes. That’s technically a good thing. Toppling down the escalator with all your luggage isn’t ideal. But after disembarking from the escalator, track down a bathroom or whip out your hand sanitizer to get rid of some of those germs.
3. Security bins
If we had to write a zombie movie, the contagion would start with the security bins. Hi, hello, basically everyone in the airport has to touch these! Yes, that includes the guy hacking up a lung next to you as you wait to board the plane and the sick kid picking her nose like her life depends on it. Unless you’re into the idea of all those germs hitching a ride onto the plane with you, wash your hands once you’re through security.
4. Armrests in the flight waiting areas
Both experts mentioned these as super-germy places given that a ton of other people also touch them. If you have time, pop into the bathroom and scrub your hands prior to boarding. You can also try going over them with disinfectant wipes before touching them.
5. Literally any surface in the bathroom—on the plane or in the airport
No matter how well and often airport and airplane bathrooms get cleaned, so many people use them in so many…intimate…ways that the experts want you to do your due handwashing diligence. If you’re feeling too lazy to wash your hands for 20 full seconds, think of toilet plume.
Toilet plume happens when you flush a toilet and it sprays aerosolized droplets of its contents throughout the air and your body, probably including your hands. (And think of how forceful airplane and airport toilets are. Flushing one sounds like you’re opening a portal to another dimension.)
After washing your hands, you may still need to touch a possibly contaminated knob to turn off the faucet or door handle to leave the restroom. Try using a piece of paper towel to shield your hand in these moments, or use your hand sanitizer once you’re out.
6. Tray tables
Plane tray tables are germ-laden surfaces, but as Dr. Smith points out, it’s pretty hard to avoid touching them if you plan on eating, drinking, or working as you travel. In that case, Dr. Smith suggests bringing disinfectant wipes to cleanse the surface first. When you’re done using the tray table, wash your hands or use your hand sanitizer. Whatever you do, don’t eat your snack directly off of them.
Inflight entertainment is great; getting sick from the touchscreen isn’t. Those who have swiped their fingers all over the screen before you can leave behind bacteria and viruses. Keep that bottle of hand sanitizer nearby while browsing movies or watching your flight map, or wash your hands once you’re done using the screen. (As a bonus, getting up often to stretch your legs can help prevent blood clots, which are more likely during long periods of travel.)
8. Anything an obviously sick person touches
This is just a given, but we’ll still say it here: If you touch something that a person who’s coughing, sneezing, or otherwise seems ill just touched, you should wash your hands as soon as possible.
Also, go get vaccinated against the flu if you haven’t already.
Washing your hands is great. But the most direct contamination source of illnesses like the flu is the sick person, not objects they’ve touched, the CDC explains.
If you’re near a sick person at the airport and can move easily, try to stand at least six feet away, which is how far respiratory droplets spreading the flu can travel, the CDC says. If you happen to be sitting near someone ill on the plane, you can try turning your head away from them when they cough or sneeze, Dr. Adalja says, and avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes so you don’t transport any of their germs into your body via those areas.
But the best thing you can really do for yourself is getting your flu vaccine. No, it’s not 100 percent effective, but it makes you less likely to get the flu or get very sick if you do wind up contracting it. It also prevents you from passing the flu along to people who are most vulnerable to flu complications, like babies, the elderly, and those who are immunocompromised.
If you’ve already gotten your flu vaccine, pat yourself on the back. Otherwise, getting vaccinated as soon as possible—it takes your body two weeks to develop flu-fighting antibodies—should be at the top of your to-do list.