The Germiest Spot on an Airplane Is Not What You’d Expect

Do you always get sick when you fly? You’re not alone. Air travel can be hard on your health, posing risks of motion sickness, blood clots and more. But it’s the threat of infection from the germ-filled airports and airplanes that lands on many travelers’ radars.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation consumer watchdog series Marketplace recently analyzed more than 100 samples from five specific surfaces on 18 flights. And its findings indicate some spots on the plane aren’t as clean as you might think. “Nearly half of the surfaces swabbed contained levels of bacteria or yeast and mold that could put a person at risk for infection,” Marketplace reports.

The following are the five surfaces Marketplace tested, leading up to the germiest spot on those airplanes.

5. Seat belt

Marketplace found seat belts had the lowest number of pathogens out of the five surfaces tested. But a third of the seat belts it sampled did contain mold and yeast.

A separate study by InsuranceQuotes.com found airplane seat belt buckles had roughly 1,116 colony-forming units — the number of bacterial and fungal cells per square inch. For reference, the average home toilet seat only has about 172 colony-forming units.

4. Tray table

airplane tray table with water and pretzels

The tray tables in the Marketplace study showed high levels of mold — a sign the surfaces weren’t being cleaned well enough. Plus, the analysis also found hemolytic bacteria on them, which can cause diseases, such as strep throat.

Furthermore, the InsuranceQuotes.com study found its tray tables contained 11,595 colony-forming units. That’s a far cry from the average kitchen countertop, which has about 361 colony-forming units.

3. Washroom handle

You probably don’t need a study to believe the airplane bathroom is a germ haven. The Marketplace analysis sampled the washroom door handle, not the flush button. And it found hemolytic bacteria there, too, along with the third highest total number of pathogens.

And it doesn’t get better once you’re in the lavatory. InsuranceQuotes.com found a whopping average of 95,145 colony-forming units on the lavatory flush buttons it studied. In comparison, a home toilet handle contains roughly 30 colony-forming units. Let’s just hope everyone washes their hands really well before they return to their seats.

2. Seat pocket

Coming in second place for the total pathogen count is the airplane seat pocket. And it’s surprising it’s not No. 1, given the disgusting items flight attendants told Marketplace they’ve found in the pockets. They include “used tampons, sandwiches, loose condoms, smartphones, [and] dirty diapers.”

Seat pocket samples showed high levels of mold, as well as E. coli and other coliform bacteria. “The presence of E. coli indicates fecal contamination, and the bacteria can cause intestinal infections, with symptoms that can include diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain,” according to Marketplace.

1. Headrest

a close-up of an airplane seat headrest and airplane window

The leader of the total pathogen count out of the five surfaces Marketplace tested was the airplane seat headrest. The analysis specifically noted finding hemolytic bacteria and E. coli on the headrests, and one sample even showed the presence of staph. According to Marketplace, this is concerning because a person could potentially inhale the germs on a headrest or acquire them through the skin.

Why the high level of contamination? It’s possible travelers touch the headrests as they make their way down the aisle of an airplane, spreading germs as they go. And that also could be why research has shown people sitting in the window seats have a lower risk of infection on an airplane.

The best — or worst — of the rest

The germ soup unfortunately doesn’t stop when you get off the airplane. The InsuranceQuotes.com study found water fountain buttons throughout the airports it tested contained 19,181 colony-forming units. And airline gate bench armrests had an average 21,630 colony-forming units. But the dirtiest by far were the self check-in kiosks, which held an average 253,857 colony-forming units.

And if you already get annoyed at airport security, a study published in BMC Infectious Diseases has even more bad news for you. It tested several surfaces throughout an airport for respiratory viruses — including those that cause the flu and common cold — and found more traces of viruses on the airport security luggage trays than the airport toilets. That’s likely because those trays see a high volume of travelers without enough disinfecting throughout the day. So be sure to stop and wash your hands or use hand sanitizer right after passing through security.

How to stay healthy during air travel

Travelers move through O'Hare International Airport.

Yes, you’ll likely be exposed to many germs during air travel. But that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get sick. Mayo Clinic offers a few tips to help you stay healthy when you fly.

  • Stay hydrated, and make healthy food choices.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Pack disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer and tissues.
  • Wash your hands frequently.

Because you can’t really avoid touching many of the germiest surfaces, such as your seat belt, using hand sanitizer or wipes is critical to decreasing your risk of infection. Always be mindful of what you handle, and try to avoid touching your face, food and possessions with dirty hands. Paying a little extra attention to your hygiene habits should be worth it to have a healthy trip.

Main image credit: izusek/Getty Images

33 comments

Graham P
Graham P13 days ago

NUMBER 6:- Other passengers! Nuf said.

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Val P
Val P20 days ago

fascinating

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heather g
heather g20 days ago

This TV program shocked a few Canadians, but I reminded them that some divers volunteer to clean out the junk from local lakes - Their stash amounted to 23,000 tons in the summer! Some of the hiking paths smell of faeces - not dog poo, but humans!!

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Maria P
Maria P21 days ago

thank you for sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W22 days ago

Thank you for caring an sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W22 days ago

Thank you for caring an sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W22 days ago

Great info Thank you for caring an sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W22 days ago

Interesting Thank you for caring an sharing

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Janis K
Janis K23 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Jetana A
Jetana A23 days ago

It's the volume of people that causes such germiness. Along with the claustrophobia I experience when I have to fly. I take immune system herbs when I travel, and wear a charcoal mask when I smell jet fuel.

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