Researchers swabbed surfaces at an airport in Finland. Here’s where they found viruses lurking.
We’re all wary of using airport bathrooms, but that’s not where you have the best chance of catching an illness that could ruin your trip.
In a new study, researchers from the University of Nottingham in England and the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare swabbed a variety of surfaces often used by passengers at Helsinki-Vantaa airport in Finland.
The researchers found that while at least one respiratory virus was present on 10 percent of everything swabbed, the microbes that could make you sick were particularly common on items such as plastic security bins, card readers in shops, passport checking counters, staircase rails, and children’s play areas.
They even detected illness-causing bugs in 25 percent of the air samples analyzed.
Recently, 19 passengers and crew members arrived sick at New York’s JFK airport on Emirates Flight 203 from Dubai. They tested positive for a broad range of common viruses, according to authorities.
“A majority of the tests showed common viruses such as influenza and the common cold,” said the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene in a statement.
The virus that was most often detected in this study was rhinovirus, the cause of the common cold.
It was found on 40 percent of surfaces that were contaminated by at least one virus.
Researchers also detected significant amounts of influenza A virus.
The most frequent place these viruses were found was also the most unavoidable — the plastic trays where we put our shoes, electronics, and other items at the security checkpoints.
The bins harbored the highest levels of infectious organisms.
Niina Ikonen, virology expert from the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare, said in a press release, “The presence of microbes in the environment of an airport hasn’t been investigated previously. The new findings support preparedness planning for controlling the spread of serious infectious diseases in airports.”
She added, “The results also provide new ideas for technical improvement in airport design and refurbishment.”
Satesh Bidaisee, DVM, EdD, professor of public health and preventive medicine and assistant dean for graduate studies at St. George’s University in Grenada, told Healthline, “Airports should improve indoor air quality management and practice more frequent disinfection of the surfaces identified in the study.”
Bidaisee, who wasn’t associated with the study, added, “Ideally, there needs to be an evaluation of pathogenic loads in airport environments to address the biggest risk factors in each location.”
A particularly worrying microbe called coronavirus was detected on 30 percent of surfaces that were contaminated by a virus.
According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, most coronaviruses cause mild to moderate upper respiratory infections similar to the common cold, but they can sometimes cause severe pneumonia, especially in elderly people and those with heart and lung disease.
Dr. Carl J. Fichtenbaum, professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati, told Healthline, “It’s important to remember that many microbes can survive on a variety of surfaces for up to several days.”
However, the researchers used a method that only detects genetic material from viruses on surfaces and in the air.
According to the study, results provided by this method don’t prove that the viruses detected are alive and can cause disease.
So, just how bad are the airport toilets?
Surprisingly, the scientists didn’t detect viruses in most of the samples collected from the airport restrooms.
They believe this may be due to people tending to pay particular attention to hand-washing when using a public toilet.
While you’re not necessarily in danger of contracting a serious illness when you fly, catching a cold or flu is still something you want to avoid.
“Staying hydrated and avoiding fatigue to keep up the immune response can go a long way,” said Bidaisee.
Specifically, he recommends that we “wash hands after contacting frequently touched surfaces, cover the mouth and nose when sneezing, and avoid close contact with people who are obviously sick.”
Fichtenbaum doesn’t think airports are likely to start a flu epidemic.
“While airports are places where we can see transmission of flu, there are many other places where it is far more likely. I don’t believe a flu epidemic can be sustained by airport transmission,” he said. “Although there are lots of people, travelers aren’t typically in contact with surfaces or others long enough for infection to occur. You’re still more likely to catch a cold or flu at home or in school.”