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Stay Healthy in the Air: Reducing the Risk of Catching More Than a Flight

Each year there are 6,500 in-flight medical emergencies in the US. A small fraction of these result in death, according to a 2013 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Still, travelers can experience a host of less serious health issues and discomfort when flying as well. Not to mention the high risk of being infected with COVID-19 or another virus. Many of these health risks and problems can be avoided, however, if travelers are aware of the risks and take precautions.

Health risks associated with flying and how to prevent them

Coronavirus. The proximity to others breathing the same air in such a confined area increases the risk of exposure. The best way to protect yourself if you are at high risk is to avoid flying. If you must fly and are particularly at risk, you can just research the measures each airline is taking to reduce your risk for COVID-19 and choose the airline with the most stringent measures. When you fly, protect yourself and others by wearing a fitted mask – an N95 mask is safest . 

Dehydration. The humidity level of airplanes is extremely low, usually under 10%. Combine this with the water loss caused by respiration, and passengers can become dehydrated enough during a flight to affect their health and mood. Drink plenty of water before, during and following your flight.

Tight clothing. When flying, several factors contribute to the risk of deep vein thrombosis (a blood clot that can be life-threatening). Tight fitting garments can create additional problems. A passenger on an international flight had her legs swellup just a couple of hours into the flight, a situation which was exacerbated by wearing skinny jeans. To reduce the restriction and prevent a blood clot, the passenger slit the legs of her  pants from top to bottom. So when flying, wear loose-fitting clothes, particularly on your lower extremities. Avoid high heels and tight shoes, which can also restrict blood flow.

Sitting too long. Similar to the problem with tight clothing, extended periods of sitting also increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis. It’s particularly problematic when flying because of the cramped seats that allow little room for movement. Passengers should get up and move around after three to four hours in flight (sooner if they begin to experience swelling or discomfort), Flexing your legs in your seat, by pressing down on your heels and up with your toes can help get your circulation moving.

Ear pain. Air pressure in your middle ear during the ascent and descent can make your ears feel clogged or painful. Usually, chewing gum, yawning or swallowing relieves the pressure. But serious cases of airplane ear can lead to severe pain, hearing loss, vertigo, bleeding from the ear and more. In such cases, you’ll need to see a doctor for treatment.

Bad breath. Several factors contribute to halitosis (bad breath) when flying. These include dehydration, skipping meals, illness, bad oral hygiene and eating certain foods. Prevention is self-explanatory for most of these contributors. As for foods to avoid before or during your flight, these include fish, garlic, onions, coffee and alcohol.

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Constipation. Sitting still for long periods coupled with dehydration and a schedule change that conflicts with your regular bowel movements can contribute to constipation when flying. So, 12 hours before your flight, eat something high in fiber. Also, adjust your routine on the day of travel so your bowels can move before you leave for the airport. Perhaps consider a stool softener the day before your flight.

Dry skin & more. The dryer air of airplane cabins contributes not only to dry skin but also to dry eyes, nostrils and lips. Start hydrating the day before your flight by drinking lots of water. Then continue hydrating during the flight. Also, avoid salty foods before and during your flight, and carry lip balm and moisturizing lotion.

Lung conditions. People with any lung condition including COPD, emphysema, severe asthma or a respiratory infection, are at higher risk of serious complications when flying. That’s because oxygen in the air decreases at high altitudes. If you have any lung condition or heart or circulatory conditions, consult with your physician before scheduling a flight. Flying is often not recommended for people with these conditions.

Pregnancy. Flying is generally pretty safe before the 36th week of pregnancy. But flying can worsen any pre-existing pregnancy complications. If you’re more than 36 weeks along or have had any complications, consult with your physician before flying. If you do fly, be sure to follow other health tips for flying to reduce the risk of an inflight emergency.

Blood pressure. Generally, flying is safe for those with high blood pressure. Still, if you have high blood pressure, Penn Medicine, in “5 Things to Know Before You Fly,” recommends you take precautions. Get up and move around while in flight. Also, avoid salty snacks, alcohol and sedatives before and during your flight. Be sure to carry your blood pressure medication with you as well. If your hypertension is more serious, consult with your doctor before flying.

Colds, flu, & viruses. When you have a cold or sinus infection, it increases the risk of middle ear pain caused by cabin pressure, so this may not be the best time to fly.  Also, if you fly with one of these ailments, which are highly contagious, it puts other passengers at risk. This can be especially serious for passengers with weakened immune systems, certain health conditions and the elderly. So if you’re infected, postpone your trip, if possible.

If you take these precautions, you can healthily travel via plane without any fear.

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