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Can you catch Ebola while riding in an airplane?

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A jet lands at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Thanksgiving eve, traditionally the busiest travel day of the year, November 22, 2006 in Los Angeles, California. The American Automobile Association (AAA) estimated 38.3 million people will travel 50 miles or more for Thanksgiving, and that 4.8 million travelers will fly to their Thanksgiving destinations.
David McNew/Getty Images
A jet lands at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Thanksgiving eve, traditionally the busiest travel day of the year, November 22, 2006 in Los Angeles, California.

The holiday travel season is fast-approaching and more passengers will start heading to airports, bringing common colds and viruses with them. But now fear of Ebola is in the air, too.

Flights in Los Angeles, Boston and Las Vegas all faced Ebola scares in the past few days when passengers on board became sick with flu-like symptoms. 

None of those travelers actually had the virus.

But the holiday travel season is fast-approaching and more passengers will start heading to airports, bringing common colds and viruses with them.

Barbara Peterson, senior aviation correspondent for Conde Nast Traveler, says airports and airlines face a balancing act keeping people safe while also not inducing a panic.

"There are lots of precautions in place, which should reassure passengers that this is something the airlines don't treat casually," she says, "but as far as Ebola, however, this is a whole different story."

For example, a person who harbors the Ebola virus but is not yet contagious may not show any symptoms whatsoever. When they are being screened at the airport, then, there might not be any visible signs that they are infected.

"Most people who would be well enough to get on a plane are not going to be in the contagious stage of the disease," says Peterson, adding that any screening procedures there are just amount to security theater.

That said, Peterson reminds people that airplanes are very safe, clean environments that pose little threat to transmission of any illness: the enclosed cabin's air is filtered and circulated so frequently that it can catch most airborne infections (and Ebola isn't airborne).

However, it's important to remember germs can lurk on surfaces for several hours, and armrests, light switches and overhead compartment doors all get touched by many people.

"Passengers can best protect themselves by just doing the routine, common thing: bring some alcohol-based sanitizer," she says. "But with the flu-season coming up, keep it in perspective. There is no serious threat of catching something simply because you're in an airplane cabin."

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