For Dr. Philip M. Tierno, travel means combat. The enemy is heartless and relentless, stealthy and ubiquitous. It is poised to attack every...

Share story

For Dr. Philip M. Tierno, travel means combat. The enemy is heartless and relentless, stealthy and ubiquitous. It is poised to attack every second of the day, even when he’s asleep. It exploits his rare moments of weakness and turns everyone and everything around him into agents who thoughtlessly do its bidding.

Tierno is not a corporate security expert trying to outflank rogue competitors. His enemy is infectious disease. He’s a professor of microbiology at the New York University School of Medicine who sees the common places of travel — cabs, airports, airplanes, hotels, restaurants and business meetings — as battlefields in the never-ending war against germs.

“Fecal organisms, oral bacterium, respiratory flora and thousands of other pathogens are here, there, everywhere,” Tierno says with studied calm.

Of course, you don’t need to travel to encounter germs. They’re all over your home and office. They’re lurking at the supermarket and the pharmacy. They might be on your hand right now. A Yale researcher recently found that a person entering a room could add about 37 million bacteria to the air every hour. Still, travel poses special challenges such as increased exposure to germs; the long-term health effects from frequent leisure and business trips; and the difficulties of finding and paying for quality medical care away from home.

Getting sick is basically a numbers game.

Eighty percent of all infectious diseases are transmitted by direct or indirect human contact. When we travel, our encounters skyrocket. When you lay your hand against the seat of a cab, it is as if you are shaking hands with every rider since the cab was last cleaned (a concept best measured in geologic time). Gripping the airport escalator handrail is like holding hands with thousands of fellow passengers. Your close encounters of the infectious kind continue on the plane as you touch the armrest of your seat, the tray table, in-flight magazine and the lavatory faucet and door handle.

And your hotel? Depending on when and how it was cleaned, you might not be sleeping and showering by yourself.

Now consider that only about half of us wash our hands after going to the bathroom. It’s enough to make you echo a line from David Foster Wallace’s novel, “Infinite Jest”: “Yes, I’m paranoid — but am I paranoid enough?”

The link between travel and illness might seem self-evident, but there is little hard data precisely defining the risk. A wealth of research has documented the swarming mass of microscopic meanies that hitch a ride on us as we travel. Scientists have swabbed everything from taxicabs to hotel remote controls for analysis. Outbreaks of influenza, measles, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), tuberculosis and smallpox have been reported on commercial airliners since 1946. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks provided a tantalizing piece of evidence: The flu season arrived 13 days later than normal in 2001, perhaps because the U.S. government shut down the air-transport system (aka the germ-transport system).

More broadly, a study of data collected from passengers flying between San Francisco and Denver found that travel increased their likelihood of getting sick by 20 percent.

“It seems clear that the full range of experiences we have while traveling, from the time we leave our house to the time we return, makes it more likely we’ll come down with something,” said Dr. Mark Gendreau, an expert in travel and aviation medicine based in Massachusetts.

Wash those hands

Before you shut your windows, lock your doors and stay home, remember that all these risks can be mitigated. Unless you have an open wound, the germs you collect on your hands cannot enter your body easily unless you touch your eyes, nose or mouth. That is easier said than done; we touch our mouths and noses about 200 times a day. A good cleaning with soap and water — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing your hands for about 50 seconds, the time it takes to hum two choruses of “Happy Birthday” — or a drop of hand sanitizer does the trick in most cases. But that only wipes the slate clean, providing little protection after that moment. Seasoned travelers sanitize early and often. (Researchers pooh-pooh the idea that too much cleanliness will weaken an adult’s immune system. The bottom line: That which does not kill me can make me sick.)

Despite their best efforts, even the most vigilant travelers will get sick. While the average American gets slightly more than two colds per year, Tierno, the NYU microbiologist, said he hasn’t had one in years. He remembers the last time all too well, as it began on a trip to Paris.

The woman seated next to him was coughing and sneezing.

“Finally I said to her, ‘You have to sequester that sneeze.’ She said, ‘I didn’t sneeze on you.’ I asked to be moved, but the flight attendant said the plane was full. Three days later, I got a cold.”

Added Tierno: “Now I travel with a mask.”