"These germs can travel up to seven feet on a subway and they probably go even farther on planes because of the mixing of the air by the overhead jets," he said.
Getting your flu shot each year can also lower your risk of developing the flu even if the passenger next to you coughs and sneezes for the whole flight, he said.
Dr. Neil Schachter, medical director of the respiratory care department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, said there have been a growing number of anecdotal reports that people develop upper respiratory infections (URI) after flights longer than five hours.
"While the study finds that the range of infection is no larger than two rows in each direction, there were several people with URI on each plane -- which certainly covered a large portion of the aircraft," Schachter said.
There have been several new infections in the past few years, including H1N1. "I think that increased surveillance of passengers is helpful to keeping sick passengers off the plane," he said. "We can anticipate emerging new infections, and better airport controls is certainly a step in the right direction, but this type of policy change takes time."
Until then, "I would advise my high-risk patients with underlying health problems to ask to be moved to another area if they are seated close to someone who is coughing and sneezing," Schachter said.
There's more on protecting yourself from the flu at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCES: Paul M. Kelly, M.S., associate professor, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia; Michael Zimring, M.D., director, Center for Wilderness and Travel Medicine, Mercy Medical Center, Baltimore; Len Horovitz, M.D., pulmonary specialist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Neil Schachter, M.D., medical dir
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