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Staying Healthy While Flying
Your luggage is packed with all the essentials for a fantastic vacation or that important business trip. In your suitcase, you may even have medications to make sure that you do not get sick while away from home. It is great to take steps to prevent illness at your destination. But what about steps to make sure you are not feeling miserable when you step off the airplane? Here are some tips to keep you healthy while in flight.
The Air We Breathe
You are stuck in an airplane breathing the same air with 200 other people for the next several hours. This most common of travel scenarios may make some of us uneasy, thinking that we may catch germs from sharing cabin air. However, breathe easy. Most new airplanes are equipped with high-efficiency-particle (HEPA) filters that remove bacteria, viruses, and other germs from the air. That, along with air brought in from the outside when the plane reaches a certain altitude, makes cabin air sterile and germ-free.
But what if the person next to you has a cold or the flu? Yes, if you are sitting next to, in front, or behind a person who is sick, you may be exposed to germs that may make you sick. However, you are also just as likely to get sick from touching contaminated surfaces on the plane.
How to Stay Healthy
- Wash your hands with soap and water. After drying them, use the paper towel to open the lavatory door.
- Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Place one in your carry-on bag. Just be sure it meets Transportation Security Administration (TSA) size regulations. Some flights may also offer sanitizer towelettes to passengers.
- Keep your hands away from your face. Germs on your hands can easily enter your body through your mouth, nose, and eyes.
- Get your rest. A study found that not getting enough sleep might make you more likely to catch a cold. How much is enough? Aim for at least 8 hours of sleep before you travel. In addition, if you have a long flight, try to get some shut eye while in flight. Flight services for long or overnight flights usually include sleep masks, ear plugs, pillows, and blankets to help you rest comfortably.
If you are sick and must travel, be courteous to fellow travelers. Cover your cough with a tissue or cough into the inside of your elbow.
High and Dry
If it is not the funny smell of cabin air that may be off-putting, then perhaps it is the dryness. Although it may not make you sick, low-humidity air can dry out skin and eyes.
How to Stay Healthy
- Stay hydrated. The snack menu may be limited to peanuts or chips, but the beverage list may offer everything from apple juice to spirits. When it comes to making your drink selection, opt for nonalcoholic, decaffeinated beverages. Water is always a good choice along with juices. Limit coffee, alcohol, and sodas since they can cause dehydration.
- Carry lotion or other moisturizer and apply it to your skin. Again, make sure the container size meets TSA regulations.
- If you wear contact lenses, consider wearing eyeglasses while in flight. This may help you avoid getting dry eyes.
A Leg Up
Sitting for long periods can not only be boring, but may also lead to blood clots in your legs. This condition, known as deep vein thrombosis or traveler’s thrombosis, can cause pain and swelling in the legs during and after travel. Although uncommon, a clot has the potential to travel from the vein to the heart and lungs, causing severe blood flow blockage, which can be life-threatening.
How to Stay Healthy
- Before your flight, ask your doctor if it makes sense to wear below-the-knee compression stockings.
- Wear loose clothing. Tight clothes may prevent blood flow.
- Stay mobile as much as possible. When the seatbelt sign goes off, get up, stretch, and walk around. Try to walk around at least once an hour.
- Make the most of your legroom. While seated, stretch your legs and arms. Do calf exercises and heel and toe lifts to keep blood circulating.
Transportation Security Administration
Travelers’ Health—Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Public Health Agency of Canada
Air travel health tips. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/prevention-wellness/staying-healthy/travel/air-travel-health-tips.html. Updated September 2010. Accessed May 19, 2015.
Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Alper CM, Janicki-Deverts D, Turner RB. Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(1):62-67.
Doucleff M. Pathogens on a plane: How to stay healthy in flight. NPR website. Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2014/07/14/319194689/pathogens-on-a-plane-how-to-stay-healthy-in-flight. Published July 14, 2014. Accessed April 26, 2016.
Flying with baby. Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/on-the-go/Pages/Flying-with-Baby.aspx. Updated November 21, 2015. Accessed April 26, 2016.
How can I have a healthy and comfortable flight? NHS Choices website. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/1953.aspx?CategoryID=70&SubCategoryID=174. Updated November 16, 2015. Accessed April 26, 2016.
Upper respiratory infection (URI) in adults and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated February 26, 2015. Accessed May 19, 2015.
Zitter JN, Mazonson PD, Miller DP, Hulley SB, Balmes JR. Aircraft cabin air recirculation and symptoms of the common cold. JAMA. 2002;288(4):483-486.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 04/2016
- Update Date: 05/19/2015