Plastic trays used at security checkpoints carry the highest levels of viruses at airports, pandemic experts warn.

Evidence of viruses was found on 10% of the surfaces tested and most commonly on plastic trays that are circulated along the passenger queue at the hand luggage X-ray checkpoints.

The results come from swabbed a variety of surfaces at Helsinki-Vantaa airport in Finland during winter 2016.

The highest concentration of viruses was detected on the security check plastic trays. Further viruses were found on shop payment terminals, staircase rails, passport checking counters, children’s play areas and in the air.

The most common virus found in the survey was rhinovirus, which causes the common cold but swabs also picked up the influenza A virus. No respiratory viruses were found on toilet surfaces.

The scientific investigation was carried out by the University of Nottingham and the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare to identify and quantify the respiratory viruses on frequently-touched surfaces in airports.

Jonathan Van Tam, professor of health protection at the university’s school of medicine, said: “This study supports the case for improved public awareness of how viral infections spread.

“People can help to minimise contagion by hygienic hand washing and coughing into a handkerchief, tissue or sleeve at all times but especially in public places.

“These simple precautions can help prevent pandemics and are most important in crowded areas like airports that have a high volume of people travelling to and from many different parts of the world.”

Virology expert Niina Ikonen, from the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare, added: “The presence of microbes in the environment of an airport has not been investigated previously.

“The new findings support preparedness planning for controlling the spread of serious infectious diseases in airports. The results also provide new ideas for technical improvements in airport design and refurbishment.”