Some advice for the next time you fly: Bring plenty of hand sanitizer, and don't touch the seat-back pocket - where, new research shows, disease-causing germs can live for more than a week.
In the study, researchers at Auburn University in Alabama wanted to see where on a plane bacteria could live long enough to sicken passengers.
So they picked six surfaces that passengers typically touch and infected them with some scary germs: MRSA, a sometimes-fatal, antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria often found in hospitals and nursing homes; and a virulent strain of E. coli, the food poisoning bacteria that can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting.
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As it turns out, the seat pocket is worse than the toilet handle. With its porous material and dark crevices, MRSA germs burrowed in there for eight days, while E. coli hunkered down in the armrest for seven days.
"I wouldn't touch that pocket. I think that it should be replaced with something less porous," Kiril Vaglenov, a postdoctoral fellow in materials science who led the study, told NBC News.
Here are the places bacteria hung around the longest, as Time.com reported.
- Seat pocket: 8 days
- Rubber armrest: 7 days
- Leather seat: 7 days
- Plastic window shade: 3 days
- Plastic tray table: 3 days
- Steel toilet handle: 2 days
The researchers didn't test the germs inside an actual plane. Instead, Vaglenov collected old parts from Delta Airlines, sterilized them, then applied MRSA and E. coli bacteria suspended in various solutions that mimicked human saliva and sweat.
The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology this week.
So how worried should you be? As the Washington Post pointed out, the bacteria might have lasted longer on the porous surfaces, like the seat pocket, but they're more easily transmitted to your hands when they're on nonporous surfaces, like the plastic tray table and window shade. For example, transmission of E. coli in sweat on tray tables remained very high even after 72 hours, but it was at zero within the same time period for armrests.
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Still, as one infection-control specialist told NBC News, the real worry on a plane isn't the germs on the armrest but the cold and flu viruses you can catch from the passengers packed in around you.
In either case, the best defense is simple hand hygiene, William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said.
"It's another reminder to wash our hands."
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