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How an Infectious Disease Doctor Protects Against Germs While Traveling

By Katherine LaGrave

Sep 29, 2020

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Disinfecting high-touch surfaces such as door handles is important, say experts.

Photo by Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Disinfecting high-touch surfaces such as door handles is important, say experts.

When it comes to traveling during COVID, what should we know about washing our hands and disinfecting surfaces? An expert weighs in.

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Nine months into a global pandemic, science definitively shows that the best way to protect ourselves against COVID-19 is to avoid being exposed to COVID-19 in the first place: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends we avoid close contact with others, maintain social distancing, wash hands often, cover up with a mask, and clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. But when travel is a necessity—and we are more exposed to COVID than we would be, say, at home—are there any other precautions we should take? 

To delve into the details, we called up Dr. Nasia Safdar, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, the vice chair for research in the Department of Medicine, and the medical director of Infection Control at UW Hospital and Clinics. Dr. Safdar spoke with AFAR about how travelers can better protect themselves against germs while traveling. 

What surfaces should I wipe down when traveling?

“I think it’s a good idea to wipe down surfaces that are not cleaned but are very frequently used. So, for instance, I carry wipes with me for doorknobs, since doorknobs are used all the time and yet maybe not cleaned as often. The same thing applies to surfaces where you’re going to be actively touching them. I would wipe down the meal tray on a plane. If you’re staying in a hotel, you would want to wipe down high-touch surfaces: the remote, the doorknobs, the light switches, maybe the bedside table. The room phone.”

How often should I wash my hands?

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“There are some baseline habits we should all develop that are considered good infection control practices, which is that you practice hand hygiene before you eat and after going to the bathroom. [Note: Good hand hygiene involves wetting, lathering, and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds.] What this does is that it makes sure you’re not getting germs inside you, even if you happened to touch them. I think most infectious disease experts subscribe to the idea that it’s OK that you’re touching surfaces and not disinfecting, as long as you wash your hands frequently, especially before you touch any other part of your body. There’s a more heightened vigilance now—and people are doing a lot more of the disinfecting surfaces—but hand hygiene is probably just as important, if not more.”

Should I wear gloves when traveling?

“It’s important to recognize that like anything else, gloves have a certain failure rate. They are not always free of holes—there are small holes that we might not see when we’re putting gloves on. So that’s why you still need to do hand hygiene when taking them off.”

How can I avoid germs at the airport?  

“Disinfection, physical distancing, and masking are all in the buckets of how to prevent transmission of infection. And all of them need to be done.

“If I was going in an airport, I would want to make sure I’m not standing too close to people; that I’m wearing my mask all the time; and that I’m doing hand hygiene if I’m touching something that someone else may have recently touched. For instance, the automated check-in. Now, you could avoid that and go to the counter, but then you might be standing in line longer, so there’s a trade-off. I would probably use the automated check-in, but I would wash my hands after. In the security line, you would want to maintain your distance and keep your mask on, because you might be there for some time. When you are putting your luggage on the conveyor belt through security, the same thing. I don’t think I would go to the lengths of wiping down the [security] trays, only because I think airports are already performing that cleaning practice in between people. So we probably don’t need to do that.

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“That’s pretty much the way I would behave up to the gate, including in the waiting area. If I was going to buy something to eat or drink, I would only get prepackaged stuff, just to avoid the chance of surface contamination. I think people are concerned they might pick something up from surfaces, but we always have to remember that we have this option of washing our hands right after, even if we do. And that takes a lot of the threat away.” 

How often can I use hand sanitizer? 

“You can use it multiple times without ruining the quality of your skin. I think of it as equivalent to hand washing. The only exceptions, of course, are that if your hands are soiled or you were engaging in activities where you really needed to wash your hands—like going to the bathroom—then hand sanitizer is not a substitute. [Note: The CDC has a comprehensive list of times when hand sanitizer is not a substitute.] But other than that, for the 101 day-to-day activities, hand sanitizer does the job perfectly fine.”

Should I disinfect my luggage?

“There’s no doubt that there’s going to be stuff on the surface of your cases, just by way of it going through the cargo hold and it being touched by multiple people. You could wipe down the handle and the pocket where you unzip stuff, or whatever it takes to open it, but I’m not certain I would go to the extent of wiping it down. I wouldn’t put it on a bed, though a lot of people do that.”

When should I avoid travel?

“You’ve bought this ticket, and the stakes are high, and you really want to travel. But if you have any symptoms of a respiratory condition in particular—but really, of any kind, if you’re feeling unwell—then you don’t want to travel. Before COVID, I think people were pretty cavalier about it: If you had a cough or were sneezing or even a little fever, you were maybe thinking, ‘Well, I’ll just suffer through it and get to my destination.’ But I don’t think that people should be practicing that anymore.” 

How much should I worry about germs? 

“I think it’s important to keep things in perspective. I see a lot of germs around in the sense that we know that everything has a certain microbiome and there’s going to be germs on every surface, but not all those germs are harmful to humans.” 

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