You may be back from your Thanksgiving travels but you should probably take another shower after you hear about this study. According to new research from Auburn University, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and viruses can live on armrests, window shades, headrests tray tables, toilet handles and all the other things you touch on a plane.
It turns out you should be less concerned about that person sitting next to you with a cold (though please cover your mouth when you cough) and worry more about making contact with the seat pocket. The study found that if you make contact with an object on a plane you risk infection with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, MRSA, or the E. coli O157:H7 gut bug. This can actually lead to kidney failure.
The research was conducted using old parts of a Delta airplane. Kiril Vaglenov, a post-doctoral fellow in materials science who led the study, and his team rubbed the airplane parts with MRSA and E. coli bacteria to mimic human sweat. They found that MRSA lasted 168 hours on a cloth seatback pocket and E.coli lived for 96 hours on an armrest. In other words, these guys are earning their miles.
In addition to the armrest and seatback pocket, you should also worry about the headrest. Microbiologist Jason Tetro, author of The Germ Files, told Well & Good, “Airplanes have their own microbiome and the most common types are those from human skin, which isn’t surprising considering we’re all constantly shedding bacteria. As for the germiest place? It’s the headrest, where you’ll not only find bacteria, but also yeasts and molds.” He continued, “If it’s a short-haul, you may not have to worry about it, as you’ll have the same exposure as you might in an office building. But as the flights get longer, the microbes on your skin can grow and that can get a bit smelly,” says Tetro. “If you do happen to pick up bacteria or fungi that’s not your own, this may lead to itchiness and bumps on the skin and scalp. ”