Could air travel put you at risk of catching tuberculosis? It is an extremely small risk — certainly not cause for alarm. But it is one you should consider, particularly when traveling on long international flights.
Tuberculosis is a contagious disease that typically affects the lungs. The bacteria that cause TB are spread through the air.
However, it takes fairly close, prolonged exposure to catch the infection. And infection usually does not lead to active disease. Only one in 10 infected people actually come down with tuberculosis. People with weakened immune systems are more prone to developing the disease.
No Chance of Fresh Air
The risk of catching TB is generally higher indoors or in enclosed areas than outdoors in the fresh air. Commercial airlines tend to employ economy measures that limit the volume of fresh air circulating in the cabin.
The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says the risk of contagion is higher on flights that last eight hours or longer. That includes time spent on the ground during flight delays if the aircraft remains sealed up with limited ventilation.
So far, the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) have identified only a few cases of transmission on an airplane. They say none of these people progressed to active TB. Still, the WHO says one-third of the world’s population is infected with the TB bacteria, and with 1.4 billion air travelers a year, the potential for transmission is high.
TB Can Be Prevented
But do not let those numbers scare you. Tuberculosis can be treated and prevented. There is a simple test for people who may have been exposed to tuberculosis. If the test is positive, that does not mean you have TB disease, just the bacteria. Further testing is needed to determine whether there is active disease.
In most cases, when infection is recognized before TB becomes active, antibiotic treatment will kill the bacteria. So your chances of avoiding TB are very high … if you know you may have been exposed and you seek prompt medical care. At this point in time, awareness is your best protection.
New Guidelines May Reduce Risk
Hoping to help airlines and health authorities get a better handle on the situation, the WHO recently issued a set of guidelines, “Tuberculosis and Air Travel: Guidelines for Prevention and Control.” Among other things, the guidelines are intended to improve tracking of travelers with TB and inform fellow passengers of possible exposure.