On illness, dreams and encatment

About a third of the time I make long-distance trips, it seems, I come down with a cold or sore throat at the far end. This time I’ve got both, and I blame it on airplane contamination. As one expert at io9 notes, it’s not the “recycled air” that’s to blame for such illnesses (cabin air is actually drawn in from the outside, compressed, heavily filtered, and warmed), but rather unsanitary bathrooms, tray tables, and your seats. Aisle seats are said to be particularly susceptible:

[Microbiologist Charles] Gerba can rattle off horror stories that will make you never want to fly on an airplane again. It’s a good idea to avoid aisle seats, for example, because according to Gerba, those are the ones most likely to come in contact with — and therefore be contaminated by — other members of your flight. He offers up an extreme example to illustrate why this is.

I’ll let you read that disgusting illustrative example for yourself, but I don’t think the data are statistically significant. (4/6 sickened people were sitting in aisle seats, with an expectation under randomness of 2/6, giving a chi-square of only 3, which isn’t significant. But I’m sure someone can do a Fisher’s Exact test or point to an error.)  Still, I had my usual aisle seat, as I don’t like to disturb people when I get up.

Tray tables are known to be seriously contaminated:

Consider, for example, a study conducted by  [microbiologist Jonathan] Sexton back in 2007. He collected samples from a variety of surfaces across numerous everyday environments (including airplanes) and analyzed them for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (aka MRSA — a deadly superbug that before the 1990s was found primarily in hospitals).

“We went ahead and tested multiple tray tables across three different planes. Sixty percent of [the tray tables, across all of the planes] tested positive for MRSA.

“We [also] found it in personal vehicles, offices, workplaces — everywhere. In just about every instance it appeared more often in the airplanes, but that could also be due to our smaller sample size [of three airplanes].”

By comparison, Sexton found MRSA in 3% of personal vehicles, 3.24% of work offices, 6.25% of public restrooms, and about a third of the home offices tested — opposed to one hundred percent of the inspected planes.

Well, again we have a small sample, but I think subsequent work confirmed that tray tables are likely sources of infection. God knows what’s been on them! Had I been savvier I would have wiped mine down with antibacterial wipes, but who thinks of something like that before a flight? I don’t exactly carry antibacterial wipes with me.

And then there are the bathrooms, but I’m always scrupulous about those. I wash my hands thoroughly after using them (the procedure is to wash as long as it takes to sing “Happy birthday to you” twice), dry them, and then open the bathroom door using a paper towel, which I discard with a deft motion.

At any rate, I still blame the flight, so now I’m in bed with a cold and a bad sore throat. The upside is that Malgorzata brings me cherry pie in bed—and Hili has, for the first time, deigned to sleep with me in bed. I’m clearly spoiled!

Sick but encatted. (Photo by Malgorzata)

I slept fitfully last night, but had vivid dreams, as I often do while traveling. There were four of them, but I’ve forgotten one. Here are the other three with two styles of dream interpretation: mine and Freud’s. (Note: I don’t really believe that dreams always have a “meaning”, but sometimes they clearly incorporate one’s real fears, experiences, or imaginings. The dreams below are real but the interpretations are fabricated.)

Dream 1:  I was going somewhere with a wheelchair. I wasn’t using the wheelchair, as I wasn’t crippled or lame, but for some reason it belonged to me and I had to push it around wherever I went.  At some point I lost it and was frantically looking for it, but didn’t find it.

Coyneian interpretation: This represents my fear of getting old, which is often with me as I age.
Freudian interpretation: The wheelchair represents the trauma I carry about from once seeing my mother naked.

Dream 2:  I was sitting at a very small bar (it seemed to seat just two people and was covered with plush leatherette) with a friend. The man behind the bar was trying to get me to join some kind of promotion for ice cream, whereby I’d join a club that would accumulate rewards for me as I bought more ice cream. But when I asked the man what the rewards were, he refused to tell me.

Coyneian interpretation:  This represents my recent attempt to lose weight by cutting out carbs, including giving up ice cream and other sugary treats. My fear is that such abnegation will not pay off.
Freudian interpretation:  As a small child, I once saw a white horse with a large penis urinate in the street. Thinking I’d develop a generative organ of that size, I’ve been permanently scarred by my failure to do so.

Dream 3: I was in a small cabin on a cruise ship that was docked, and trying to study for an upcoming final exam. But at the same time I realized I was supposed to be exercising, and was trying to figure out a way to exercise and study at the same time. I wound up lying on the bed with a book and kicking my legs vigorously.

Coyneian interpretation:  As I have several ongoing tasks simultaneously, this represents both my fear that I won’t get them done and my unsatisfactory attempts to succeed.
Freudian interpretation:  The latent dream-thought is my desire to be both a man of action and a man of intellect, much like my hero T. E. Lawrence (that much is true). By kicking while studying, I’m ineffectually trying to realize that goal. Alternatively, this could be repressed hostility against my father, trying to kick him for urging me to be a diligent scholar.

I don’t have much truck with Freud, but I surely do like Hili and cherry pie!


  1. GBJames
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Heh. Last night I had a recurring dream. Or maybe I just dreamt I had a recurring dream. I’m not exactly sure.

    Drams have meaning. Dreams, not so much.

  2. Posted September 5, 2017 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Personally I can’t stand aisle seats in planes. It seems very few people are capable of walking past me without brushing me. I find it really annoying, particularly when I am trying to nap.

    • David Coxill
      Posted September 5, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      I like to look out of the window on flights ,so i book window seats.
      I think Google Earth is the greatest thing since the last greatest thing.

    • Rita
      Posted September 5, 2017 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      I always get an aisle seat, in order to have room for my legs, so I’m grateful to the window-seaters.

    • Posted September 7, 2017 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      Michael – I would suggest a transplant of foreskin to elbow – that way you can enjoy the brushing 🙂

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    My theory, which is mine : dust, dust mites, and – importantly- the dust mite excreta with viruses or bacteria in it – all kicked up – in dry conditions especially, like Winter – goes in your nose, mouth, throat, is a big source of colds/maladies.

    I admit I have done no work of any sort to support this theory.

    One observation that might support it : social impediments to wearing one of those masks all day that you see in The News, on residents of certain countries I won’t name which.

    Get Well Soon, PCC(E)!

    • Posted September 5, 2017 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      Gord forbid that PCC(E) might have developed a cat allergy!

  4. Posted September 5, 2017 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Dr. Freud, Oh Dr. Freud
    How I wish you had been differently employed.
    The set of circumstances that enhances the finances
    Of the followers of Dr. Sigmund Freud.
    (Don’t remember the rest)

    A thoroughly nasty fellow by all accounts. I was horrified when I tried to read Freud while still in the teen years. It contributed to strong feelings of alienation from just about everything.Freud plus Sartre and Camus.

    • David Harper
      Posted September 5, 2017 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Young folks who frequent picture palaces
      Have no need of psychoanalysis.
      The followers of Freud
      Are greatly annoyed,
      But they cling to their long-standing fallacies.

      [Read it aloud.]

  5. Posted September 5, 2017 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this post JAC – timely because I had a recurring dream last night, and the post has also prodded me into writing something about my varied recurring dreams. Last night’s was the typical jet-liner goes down shortly after takeoff. It is never catastrophic, and occurs in different settings from rural to the middle of the city. We never get high enough and are forced to a slow belly landing. Everyone exits safely – the end. Since I have no overt fear of flying, I have no self-analysis. And Freud would say “When you dream of an airplane crashing it is most of the time synonymous with broken dreams and hopes. You may have set your goals too high to start with. You are in danger of losing control over the events and being helpless in the face of major changes.” To which I call BS. 🙂

    • Posted September 6, 2017 at 4:49 am | Permalink

      I have a similar one where we fail to gain significant height, and end up flying between buildings, trying to avoid power lines and telegraph poles. I am not a nervous flyer, and my life has been full of changes, all of which I have happily embraced.

      • Posted September 7, 2017 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        Mine also are about not gaining enough height – never coming down from on high. Oddly, some of the dreams are nearly identical, even when separated for months or years.

  6. Posted September 5, 2017 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    That Freudian horse-penis interpretation is the winner.

  7. Lee Beringsmith
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Cherry pie in bed and a cat to snuggle with, seems like a pretty good trade for a small illness.

  8. Craw
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    That I have never had dream 2 counts as a point for Freud.

  9. Liz
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I’m not one but moms think to wipe down tray tables with antibacterial soap or wipes.

    I don’t think dreams always mean something either. It’s engaging to reflect on why you might have had them and a nice way to wake up.

  10. Posted September 5, 2017 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Get well soon ;).

  11. busterggi
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    “I’ll let you read that disgusting illustrative example for yourself, but I don’t think the data are statistically significant.”

    Clearly its time for a grant submission!

  12. Kevin
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Planes are basically death capsules.

    I have a mass spec that I can blow into from 20 feet away across the lab and it can pick up my CO2. If anyone thinks that another person’s breath on a plane cannot find it’s way into yours…good luck with wishful thinking.

    Anyhow, I travel a lot by plane and almost never get sick. The trick. Kids. The more snot nosed, repugnant Strep-ridden, little screaming me-me’s you can be surrounded by the stronger your immune system.

    Though, when I taught high school my kids would get me sick a lot and my immune system seemed to actually be compromised by ‘older’ kid germs. Weird.

    • David Harper
      Posted September 5, 2017 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      But they’re death capsules hurtling through the air six miles above the ground at three quarters of the speed of sound. That’s got to count for something, right?

    • Posted September 5, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Kevin – the planes are not “death capsules” but rather “a long tube filled with a bunch of demons.” This point was made during a discussion between televangelists Kenneth Copeland, Jesse Duplantis, explaining why the need their private jets. If you have the stomach, a google search will give the link to the video. Beyond disgusting.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 5, 2017 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

      Yeah but it’s not the CO2 that carries disease.

      I was ruminating (after seeing a TV quiz question) on ‘the great stink’ in London in 1858 which prompted the construction of the world’s first great sewage system. It was believed that smells carried disease.

      Now a smell is normally gas molecules (probably in this context mostly hydrogen sulphide). I don’t think any gas can carry disease. Vapours, mists and dusts can. Generally they don’t have the range of gas.

      Bottom line is, I doubt a sneeze would carry 20 feet unless there are favourable air currents. Obviously the CO2 from anyone’s breath can permeate all over the plane, but that’s not quite the same issue.

      Also, I believe, research has shown (translate: I read it somewhere) that diseases such as colds are mostly transmitted by touching surfaces that the sufferer has also touched, rather than airborne. i.e. wash your hands before and after touching anything…


  13. Posted September 5, 2017 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I always carry sanitizer and sanitizing wipes when I fly. I scour everything in my area. Don’t even ask about my bathroom visit. Never caught anything from flying except indirectly from my wife who is not as diligent as I.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted September 5, 2017 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      The way hand sanitizer works – and I distinguish HS from wipes – makes me doubt the effectiveness. People usually are in a rush and blast the hands quick – that’s how HS became popular. It’s the whole point – you’re not near a sink. This also means all the junk you are trying to clean off your hands is still all over your hands. What matters is how long and hard you rub and scrub. Then the junk still goes in your mouth, but in a different form or state.

      The Red Cross recommends if you’re away from any type of sanitation product, and really have to, you rub your fingers hard for something like 30 seconds. Makes sense to me.

      • Posted September 5, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

        Oh, I am thorough. You should see me at the supermarket wiping down my shopping cart.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted September 5, 2017 at 11:10 am | Permalink

          You’re probably using the wipes then – on a cart.

          • Doug
            Posted September 5, 2017 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

            I always wondered about those mouthwashes that promise to kill germs. Is it healthy walking around with a mouthful of dead germs? Do germs rot when they die?

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted September 5, 2017 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

              Their souls linger on in purgatory waiting for new germs to inhabit…


  14. Mark Cagnetta
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Get well soon Jerry!

  15. amyt
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Ever since I started sucking on Vit C with zinc tablets on flights I have never gotten a cold/sore throat. Until then my throat was always sore before I even got off the plane. There is evidence that the zinc interferes with viral attachment. Vit C is probably hooha but could one stand to suck on just zinc.Meh.

  16. Posted September 5, 2017 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Disposable anti-bacterial wipes are indispensable on airplanes and in hotel rooms. The number of cleaners who disinfect trays, TV remotes, bedside lamp switches, etc. are few and far between, I suspect.

    Your dream about a wheelchair not belonging to you makes perfect sense to me, given your very long journey and jet lag. I think it’s just remnants of memory/stimuli in your brain about pushing around a airport baggage cart and the rational concern of losing one’s luggage.

  17. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I 2nd the opinion of many others to liberally use sanitary wipes when flying in a death-tube. Appearances and sidelong looks be danged. You will never see these people again.

  18. Posted September 5, 2017 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Hili loves you! And your Freudian interpretations are hilarious. As an aside, I have given up sugar (for me, it came most often in the form of my daily glass of wine)and have made a commitment to replacing simple carbs with complex ones and lots of veggies. As I start week 3, my energy levels are definitely up.

    Get well soon!

  19. nicky
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    I must be lucky, never had a cold or sore throat after a flight as far as I can remember.
    I try to get a window seat for the view though. And I like a glass of red wine during a flight, maybe that disinfects my throat?

    • James Walker
      Posted September 5, 2017 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

      I’ll drink to that!

  20. eric
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    On any long-distance flight, no matter how clean or dirty the plane, you’re relatively suddenly putting your body in a place where the micro-organisms are slightly different and your body isn’t used to them.

    So while I don’t dispute that the tray tables are dirty, I’d say don’t discount the ability of Polish rhinovirus strains to overcome your Chicago rhinovirus-tuned immune system.

    • James Walker
      Posted September 5, 2017 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      I also think that not being comfortable or getting proper rest (I can usually sleep on the plane but it’s never as restful as sleep in a bed) lowers your immune system and makes you more likely to pick up whatever’s floating around.

      • Posted September 5, 2017 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

        Good point. It’s important to be well-hydrated, both to fight off the invading germs and to recover from jet lag.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 5, 2017 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

          This is why they take your water off you in security, of course. 😦

          (I have to say, though, that I got my (empty) water bottle through security in Dubai and by the time I was three hours into my 15-hour flight to Auckland I’d managed to score enough plastic glasses of water off the helpful passing Emirates stewardesses to refill it. A water bottle is far more practical – i.e. spill-proof – than a row of little plastic glasses for the long thirsty overnight segment of the flight).


  21. James Walker
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    My partner, who works for an airline, maintains that the seat-back pocket is the filthiest part of the plane, since it almost never gets cleaned.

  22. Posted September 5, 2017 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Encatment brings encha’tment!

  23. jahigginbotham
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    (cabin air is actually drawn in from the outside, compressed, heavily filtered, and warmed)

    As the linked io9 article correctly states, the outside air is cooled, not warmed. Ideally, PV=nRT.

  24. Posted September 6, 2017 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    On the subject of opening doors with a paper towel, turns out bacteria are really good at getting through layers of paper.

    We had an experiment in the first year biology labs where students got to plate their fingerprints after wiping e-coli lawns with toilet paper.

    Turns out the little buggers can penetrate more layers than you would ever be able to use in practice.

    I still use the paper towel, but I also try to use it in such a way that only the back of my finger/hand makes contact as an extra precaution. Washing the tap handle before turning off the tap is also a good idea.

    Had lunch at the mall yesterday and came down with a cold overnight. Didn’t touch anything and used utensils, so probably someone in the kitchen with a cold passed it on.

    So, get well soon, fellow cold sufferer – I am genuinely empathising 🙂

  25. Posted September 6, 2017 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Travel can be and is stressful add a little temperature and presto! Cherry pie, cat favours and parapraxis. Some trip Prof (E)

  26. Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Fantastically funny. Here’s to cherry pie and snuggly cats (that don’t bite). I hope you feel better. And yuck about planes.

  27. Posted September 7, 2017 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Get well soon, but thoroughly enjoy the pies and Hili’s attention throughout your illness.

    (Maybe, the groper in the airport had germs?!)

    Sometimes dreams do have meanings as self-interpreted by the dreamer. I killed off god in a dream by having the church roof cave in on the minister and congregation after I, my brother and a friend had left the building.

  28. Posted September 11, 2017 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    You cannot say ‘crippled’!

    The true interpretation is that at some point in the previous day or days you saw or thought about a wheelchair / bar / cabin etc… then all your brain does is weave the things together as the brain likes to make things into a narrative.

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