Is Air Travel Becoming ‘You Fly, You Die?’

By Lee Bellinger / November 12, 2013

Avoid In-Flight Flu
and Other Airline Health Hazards

Today, just stepping inside an airplane puts your health at greater risk than ever before. We’re not talking about airline accidents, and we don’t even mean the potential health dangers (or privacy invasions) associated with backscatter x-ray devices.
We’re referring to the incredibly high risk of getting sick from spending time inside a high-tech, aerodynamic germ trap. When you travel by plane, you are instantly 100 times more likely to catch a cold or come down with the flu than if you’d stayed grounded. Yes, 100 times!

Serious Medical Issues Stem from Air Travel

With more international flights and dangerous diseases like measles bouncing from country to country via plane, you have to worry about more serious illnesses, too – not that the flu can’t be deadly serious.
Air travel also puts you at higher risk of a life-threatening pulmonary embolism – even if you’ve never been diagnosed with heart disease or circulation problems.
Frequent flying can damage your hearing… and even jet lag is tied to some nasty, long-term health risks.
Even with all the dangers, we certainly don’t recommend that you forego flying. If you need to get somewhere far away, there’s just not a more convenient way to go. So, instead of cancelling your travel plans, let’s take a look at what you can do to protect yourself when you fly…

The Most Common Flight Risk

More than anything else, when you fly you risk being laid up with a cold or the flu. Even though these illnesses are typically minor, they’re no fun and best avoided if possible.
When you fly, make sure you drink lots of water. The low humidity in the cabin dries out your nasal passages, which makes it easier for viruses to gain a foothold in your body and make you sick. You can combat this effect by staying hydrated.
You don’t have to guzzle gallons of water, but sip on water often – before and during your flight.
You can also help to prevent colds by using a nasal mist, by keeping your hands clean (we’re not major advocates of hand sanitizers, but we make exceptions when flying), and by taking extra vitamin C, zinc, and vitamin A leading up to a trip

Protect Yourself from Dangerous Blood Clots

Protect against Blood Clots
When you fly, the changes in pressure, the prolonged inactivity, and even the extra-dry air may cause what is known as deep vein thrombosis, or DVT. Many doctors believe that air flight causes changes in your circulation that trigger small blood clots to form in your legs, particularly on long flights where you may be inactive for hours.
Sometimes one of these clots is big enough to block the flow of blood to the rest of your leg. When that happens, your leg begins to ache and may swell. The real danger is if one of these clots breaks free and lodges in the artery that leads to your lungs. That’s a pulmonary embolism, and it can be deadly.
People at the highest risk of DVT are those who have cancer or heart disease, who are overweight, who have been sick, or who have had a recent surgery. Taking hormone-altering drugs can also increase your risk. You can reduce your risk by making it a point to move around during your flight.
Here a few health tips to consider before your next flight:
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes.
  • Go for a stroll – stand up and walk around the cabin at least once every hour.
  • Stretch in your seat. Twist and look over one shoulder and hold the stretch. Then twist the other way. Circle your ankles to stretch your calves. Pull one knee toward your chest and hold it for a moment. Then do the other. Stretch often during the flight. If you use the restroom, take an extra minute to do some bigger stretches while you’re up.
  • Try to select a seat with extra leg room or opportunities to get up. An aisle seat, an exit row seat, or a business-class or first-class seat can all give you extra space and mobility. Seat upgrades can cost you extra, but they may be worthwhile in terms of comfort and health.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • Take a brisk walk through the airport during your layovers.
  • Wear support socks designed to help circulation.
  • Consider wearing a filter mask, especially on international flights, or when travelling through airports with large numbers of international passengers (Miami, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington Dulles come to mind).
If you do have any signs or symptoms of DVT in the days following air travel, see a doctor right away.

Prevent Hearing Damage

The constant roar of a jet’s engines can eventually take a toll on your hearing, especially if you’re a frequent flyer. In this case, protection is simple. Just invest in a pair of noise reduction headphones and wear them for the better part of the flight.

Don’t Let Jet Lag Wear You Down

Jet Lag
A long-term health risk associated with flying is jet lag. When you travel across time zones, you can mix up your internal clock and your sleep patterns. The short-term risks of jet lag include headaches, nausea, and insomnia. Long-term risks of frequent jet lag include cognitive decline and mood disorders. It can also contribute to heart disease and certain cancers.
You can minimize the impact of jet lag on your body by gradually adjusting your sleep schedule during the week before a trip. Make sure you get a full night’s sleep before you depart. Once you board the plane, set your watch to your new time zone. Once you arrive at your destination, get outside and walk around. Don’t go to bed until a normal time for the time zone you’re in. And, one more time… stay hydrated. It will help you adjust more quickly.
Being able to fly from one destination to the next is a major convenience and not one that we’re willing to give up. By following the tips here, you can make sure that you stay healthy before, during, and after your trip.