Microbes and holidays

As courses come to an end and attention turns to holidays, it’s hard not to think about the different microbes one may encounter on trips. There are occasional news stories of ‘holidays from hell’ where travellers wind up in hospital.

I’m glad to see that the SfAM summer conference has some presentations to focus on this matter, but what microbes might be encountered on my travels to the conference?


Wheels and feels

The journey will start with a drive to the airport, prior to a short flight. This part of the jaunt is unlikely to expose me to unfamiliar microbes (especially as I pretty much live in my car at weekends), but what about airports?

There are two main sources for new exposure to microbes. The first is people. What have they got on/ in their body that could be transferred? Where have they travelled from? Did they wash their hands?


Check it out

A study in Texas found that the dirtiest place in an airport was the self check-in area. This makes sense; it’s something you must come into contact with if you want to fly.

It’s hard not to think of TV ads which portray infection passing from one person’s hand to a number of surfaces and people, usually portrayed in a sickly green colour.

The same study found that planes are cleaner than the airports, but the highest abundance of bacteria are found on the tray table. Again, it’s an item that’s hard to avoid, even if it’s just a prop for your book or magazine.

The study also highlighted that only the toilets are cleaned between flights, while other surfaces receive a nightly clean. A different study also found that the aisle seat boasts more bacteria due to the higher touching level than window seats. I’m glad I have a 6:30 am flight with a window seat!


Air apparent

The second source of microbes is the recirculating air system in the airport and on the plane. How does the air system in the plane work? Is it a circulation of the outside air at the plane’s cruising altitude or is it a recirculation of the air collected before take-off?

Thankfully, the air on the plane is mainly taken from outside, so it’s unlikely to deliver a range of microbes. It’s your fellow passengers who bring the bacteria, noise and bother.

The final part of my travel will involve a train to Brighton. Thankfully, the trains offer the fresh air that I long for when travelling by tube, but again I’ll be exposed to microbes from fellow passengers.


Life’s a beach

As I’m flying south to Gatwick and London’s warmer than Northern Ireland, that’s a recipe for different microbes. My microbes are tolerant to wetter windier conditions, while the London microbes will be exposed to slightly warmer and drier conditions. Many will be the same, but some are also likely to be different.

As I breathe a sigh of relief that my travels are over, I’m likely to remember the popularity of swimming in the sea, something Brighton is famous for. As I cool off in the waves, I’ll probably reflect on recent studies of the antibiotic resistant Escherichia coli which could be in the water.

Surfers have been found to contain a higher abundance of these bacteria in their guts than non-surfers. After years of swimming, snorkelling and scuba-diving, I like to think there’s nothing the waters of Brighton can throw at me that my body hasn’t encountered before.


Passport to infection

No matter what microbes (or people) I encounter on my travels, I can’t wait for the conference. I’m really looking forward to the ECS event on Personal Impact and Branding AND the Journal of Applied Microbiology lecture from Professor Albert Bosch whose specialist area is the Hepatitis A virus.

SfAM President, Professor Mark Fielder will present the prestigious WH Pierce prize to an outstanding microbiologist who has made a substantial contribution to the science of applied microbiology. It’s going to be a science-packed, super social, mind expanding 3 days beside the sea!


Gonzalez R. (2011) Why you really get sick on trains and how to prevent it [Online]. Available from:

Leonard, A.F.C., Zhang, L., Balfour, A.J., Garside, R., Hawkey, P.M., Murray, A.K., Ukoumunne, O.C., Gaze, W.H. (2018) Exposure to and colonisation by antibiotic-resistant E. coli in UK coastal water users: Environmental surveillance, exposure assessment, and epidemiological study (Beach Bum Survey). Environmental International, 114: 326-333.

Morton, C. (2018) The dirtiest place in an airport is nowhere near the toilet [Online]. Available from:


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