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5 Ways Air Travel Affects Your Health and What You Can Do To Stay Comfortable

written by Vidya Sury April 18, 2024
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Why air travel can cause dehydration, fatigue, ear issues, bloating, and viral infections, and how best to avoid these effects.

Environmental factors in an airplane cabin and the process of traveling itself can affect the body’s normal functioning, but several precautions can be taken to minimize the impact.

The pressure, temperature and oxygen levels in the cabin fluctuate, and the humidity level is lower than it is at sea level. All of these can mess with some of your body’s normal functions. Then, there’s the actual process of traveling, which could involve switching time zones and coming in contact with dozens or even hundreds of other people.

Dr. Goldman of Cleveland Clinic points out that even the stress associated with traveling can take its toll, and recommends individuals plan ahead to minimize this. People could, for example, head to the airport early to avoid the stress of unexpected traffic and queues. Those who need to take medications could pack these in carry-on luggage for easy access, while individuals with diabetes or other health conditions can book special dietary meals ahead of time.

If individuals are not feeling well, it might be worth putting off air travel. If your eustachian tubes are clogged by inflammation from a cold or allergies, your ears might not be able to ‘pop’ during takeoff and landing, which could cause pain and even damage the ear.

5 ways air travel can affect your body travel, luggage, airport

Here are five common ways that air travel can affect the body

and the steps individuals can take to minimize the impact of each.

Dehydration risk

Airplane cabins have very low humidity levels because about 50% of the air circulating in the cabin is pulled from the outside, and at high altitudes, the air is almost completely devoid of moisture. This might cause a person’s throat, nose, eyes and skin to feel dry so carry an empty water bottle that can be refilled after clearing security and packing small bottles of lotion, eye drops or nasal sprays in hand luggage. People could also try wearing glasses instead of contacts to help prevent the discomfort of dry eyes.

Energy depletion

Air pressure is lower at higher altitudes, which means your body takes in less oxygen. Airlines ‘pressurize’ the air in the cabin, but not to sea-level pressures, so there’s still less oxygen getting to your body, which can make you feel drained or even short of breath. Dehydration and sitting for long periods can make it worse, as can traveling to a different time zone.

Hydration is key to combatting this problem. Getting up, walking around on longer-haul flights, and performing stretches while seated, for example, lifting the feet off the ground and flexing and pointing the toes, can keep blood flowing. For those traveling to a different time zone for just a day or two, try to keep sleep schedules on home time zones.

Stress on ears and motion sickness 

The pressure in the cabin changes and the air pressure inside your inner ears tries to adjust with it — this equalization is what helps you maintain your balance. Stress is placed around the middle ear tissue and eustachian tubes when the outside pressure changes quickly during takeoff and landing, which is why your ears may adjust by popping.

This imbalance can also contribute to motion sickness. Motion sickness occurs when the brain receives conflicting messages about motion and the body’s position in space delivered from the inner ear, eyes, and skin receptors and the muscle and joint sensors.

Swallowing or yawning to open the eustachian tubes, which control the pressure in the middle ear, during takeoff and landing helps. To minimize motion sickness, choose a window seat over the wing, where the degree of motion is lowest and the passenger may be able to view the horizon.

Bloating

Airplane pressure changes also cause gas inside the stomach and intestines to expand, which is why people may feel bloated with air travel. Avoid foods that are known to make gas worse before and during a flight.

Exposure to germs

You might think that recirculating air in the cabin would make you prone to getting sick, but commercial airlines actually have advanced filtering systems that remove most bacteria, fungi, and viruses from the air. It is the close proximity with so many other people that is more likely to make you sick during air travel.

Have vaccinations up to date before flying, carry a small bottle of sanitizer, and wash your hands thoroughly throughout the journey.

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