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posted: 2/3/2013 6:00 AM

Tips for keeping germs at bay at 35,000 feet

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Recently while flying back to Chicago from Cancun, Mexico, I was seated behind a couple wearing masks -- the Lone Ranger style. Only they weren't trying to hide their identity. They were trying to avoid catching the flu that has become epidemic this winter. And with good reason. Half the passengers on the plane were coughing, sneezing or looking like death was imminent and in some cases would be welcome.

"The airline should issue surgical masks to all passengers," said my husband, who was hacking away with the best of them. Although the airlines claim the air circulating at 35,000 feet is perfectly safe, many flight attendants would disagree.

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"I've had passengers board who feel fine. A few hours into the flight their eyes start to burn, their noses stuff up and their throats became scratchy," said my old flying partner.

Carol Cross is one of those. "It happens every time I fly," Carol says. "I board feeling healthy, but shortly into the flight, I'm sure I'm coming down with the flu." But when she deplanes and gets some fresh air, she feels fine.

In fact, it happens so often, my flying partner and I dubbed it, the air-flu syndrome. People who suffer it swear they're coming down with influenza, but once they're off the plane they feel better.

Not all passengers get over it so quickly. According to one pediatrician, nearly all of his flu patients this season recently spent time on an airplane. According to him, it's a combination of passengers seated in proximity to one another and the recycled air circulating throughout the aircraft. And not too many years ago, most experts agreed the killer SARS virus was spread through air travel.

So how do you avoid getting sick when you're at 35,000 feet? Here are some ways to keep the flying debris at bay:

• Avoid the seat pocket in front of you. People put everything in there, including used tissues and baby diapers. You have no idea what was on the hands of passengers who read the in-flight magazine before you. It's much safer to bring your own reading material.

• Drink water. The rule of thumb is to drink at least 8 ounces of water for every hour of flight. The best way to do that is to bring your own. Cinda Wells keeps an empty liter bottle in her carry-on. She fills it at the drinking fountain before she boards her flight, and religiously consumes it throughout her trip.

• Wash your hands often. Many flight attendants wear disposable gloves when they're serving and clearing snacks. Frequent flier Mary Boland does the same. She said the gloves remind her to keep her hands clean and away from her face.

• Pack your own air purifier. Several companies make personal air purifiers that hang around your neck and take up very little space in your carry-on. Some frequent fliers won't leave home without it.

• Avoid contact with other passengers and cover your face when you sneeze or cough, and you may be lucky and only take home happy memories from your travels instead of some miserable virus.

Many of us would agree, flying is hazardous to your health. It's a wonder the Surgeon General hasn't attached such a warning to every boarding pass.

Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached via email at gailtodd@aol.com.

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