The coughing epidemic on planes

(Photo: Mr Stabile / Flickr)

(Photo: Mr Stabile / Flickr)

[From TravelSkills reader JM:] I wanted to get this off my chest and thought it might make an interesting blog post for you…

I just flew back to SFO from Cancun, most of the way on Delta. Great service with a smile—I was impressed.

However there was lots of coughing going on– I felt surrounded by a coven of coughers.

I arrived back in SF at 5:30pm, went to bed and then woke at 4 am with a sore throat—and a cold coming on.  As always, I hit the cold hard with zinc lozenges, anti-inflammatories, lots of rest immediately, Vicks on the bottom of my feet, chicken soup, etc. I’m glad to say that I am pretty much over it, fortunately.

But…I found it curious that the flight attendants (for their own health, if not the passengers) don’t announce something like this during cold and flu season:

“If you have a cough, as a courtesy to those around you over the duration of the flight:  cover your mouth, cough into your elbow or your collar, not your hands.”

Maybe they could sell cough drops—or even give them away to ill-prepared passengers. Maybe pass out handkerchiefs for people to cough or sneeze into? The effort would be well worth the trouble and expense, and build goodwill for the airline.

If I had cough drops, I would have given them out gladly.

For everyone’s ears and nerves, don’t you think this is a concern, especially now that the flu epidemic seems to be escalating?

You travel much more than I do, so I’m curious to know if this has ever been addressed. Would love to have some flight attendants weigh in. OK, I’m done with my rant. :)

Thanks JM! You are onto something here. There was a cougher/hacker behind me all the way from Tokyo last night! The hacking, sneezing and wheezing does get a bit tedious, especially on overnight flights. I think this would be an excellent opportunity for an airline to team up with Vicks, Kleenex, Handi-wipes or Hanes Handkerchiefs and help put a muzzle on the flu. Virgin? United? Are you reading TravelSkills?

What do you think? Have you noticed coughing getting worse? Have you ever been stuck in an embarrassing coughing fit, and would have welcomed a cough drop from a flight attendant? Please leave your comments below.


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  • chris

    Had to add this new definition for an old word:

    Coffee, n. The person upon whom one coughs.


  • Dawn

    Defense is the best offense in this case. I bring Zinc/Vit. C lozenges when I fly and keep on sucking them. I think it coats the throat and provides a good defense for the horrible, recirculated air.

  • Mara

    Now I understand why Japanese (and Chinese too I think?) wear those surgical masks in the winter — it’s because they have a cold and don’t want to spread the germs. How polite! We need more of that over here.

    At the integrative medicine clinic I go to, I was told to take 4000 IU of Vitamin D3 before and during travel. Between that and taking 2000 IU daily, I haven’t had a cold…after a year, with bouncing all over the planet and going to a developing country. It’s ridiculous that Vitamin D deficiencies (which most of us have) are not more widely discussed!

    Silicone earplugs while sleeping = not hearing the coughs.

  • Michael

    Hey B.A.T. and JM

    I just wanted to take a minute to respond to your ” The Coughing Epidemic on Planes” posts. I am a 25 year flight attendant and indeed, your posts certainly address a frustration my fellow crew members and I experience every year! I would guess, the average flight attendant, probably has a minimum of 2 or 3 absences during the cold and flu season. Of course, the confined space, poor air circulation and careless behavior while travelling sick, all contribute to the spread of the virus. Without doubt, if our airline employers permitted, the majority of flight attendants would don face masks and hazmat suits during the flu season!

    Your suggestions regarding announcements and instructions calling attention to the flu epidemic are right on! However, being a global airline, one must be culturally sensitive and providing such etiquette instructions, over the public address system, can probably be interpreted as not very customer friendly, no matter how correct your assessment..

    I like your mention of teaming up with a cough drop maker or Kleenex, as a token of goodwill for ill prepared customers. Unfortunately, though wonderful suggestions, probably not likely coming to an airplane near you, anytime soon.

    May I suggest, while travelling during the cold and flu season, each of us prepare ourselves and maybe plan ahead, that others sitting around us may have forgotten or may not be as prepared. At least, having extra kleenex and cough drops in your pocket, just may prevent the spreading of cold and flu by those in closest contact with you during the flight.

    JM “Thank You” for the nice compliments regarding your recent travel on Delta. My focus, every day, is my passengers. And despite all the difficulties and frustrations one experiences while travelling today: a smile from your crew does matter.

  • Terry

    I take a corp. bus to work and the coughs are definitely on right now. If the person close to me doesn’t make any effort to cover the cough I find that publicly shaming them makes me feel better.