Airline travel is fast, convenient and safe, with the vast majority of passengers reaching their destinations safely and without harmful health effects. However, the aircraft environment and travel-related factors can cause certain stresses on travelers.
The Aerospace Medical Association has prepared this brochure for passengers, with the hope that the following useful air travel tips and general health information will make your travels more enjoyable
- Research the health-related conditions in the country you are visiting.
- Be sure your immunizations are current.
- Allow ample time to check in and reach your departure gate.
- Carry your medication with you in your carry-on luggage.
- Wear loose, comfortable clothing and comfortable shoes that have been worn previously.
- Delay your trip if you are not well.
- Seek the Advice of your physician if you have any
In order to allow for flying at high altitudes where oxygen concentration is lower, aircraft cabins are pressurized. This pressure, called barometric pressure, is lower than at sea level. For most flights the cabin pressure is similar to the pressure on a peak of a small mountain that is at 5,000 – 8,000 feet.
This has two effects:
1. Less oxygen is available because the pressure of oxygen becomes lower, and
2. Gas within our body cavities expands. Both of these phenomena are usually well-tolerated by healthy passengers.
Both of these phenomena are usually well-tolerated by healthy passengers.
Effects of Altitude – Oxygen
With increased cabin altitude comes a decrease in oxygen absorbed into the blood and circulated throughout the body, as compared to ground level. As long as you are in reasonably good health, your body has mechanisms that compensate for this decreased quantity of oxygen.
On the other hand, passengers with significant heart, lung, and blood diseases may not tolerate lower amounts of oxygen well. Therefore, they should consult their physician before air travel to evaluate their capability to travel and to determine if there is a need for medical oxygen or other special assistance.
- Medical oxygen can be arranged with most airlines. Check with your carrier several days in advance of the flight.
- The combination of low oxygen, alcohol, inactivity and sleep can generate unpleasant side effects like dizziness and/or fainting if one stands up too fast after awakening. Arm and leg exercises before standing up will usually prevent this.
Effects of Altitude – Gas Expansion
The body contains air in the middle ear (inside of the ear drum) and sinuses. As the aircraft ascends, the air in these cavities will expand but the excess pressure will be released outside via tubes connecting them to the nose. On descent the reverse occurs, with air flowing from outside to these cavities via the same tubes. This is well-tolerated as long as the air can flow into and out of these cavities freely. To facilitate the free flow of air, particularly on descent, it is helpful to periodically swallow, chew or yawn. (This is why it is important that passengers stay awake during descent.) Give something to drink to young children or a pacifier to infants.
- Avoid flying if you have an ear, nose or sinus infection. Congestion prevents the air from flowing freely in and out of these cavities which could result in pain, bleeding and even a ruptured ear drum.
- Don’t fly if you are not able to clear your ears.
- Eat slowly and avoid eating gas-forming foods (peanuts, cabbage, etc.) or carbonated liquids shortly before a flight. The swallowed air or gas formed through digestion will expand and can cause discomfort.
Humidity in the cabin is usually low: in the range of 20%. There is no specific risk to your health, but low humidity can cause mild discomfort, particularly dry skin and eye irritation for sensitive people.
- Drink about 8 ounces of water each hour and use a hydrating nasal spray.
- Limit consumption of alcohol, tea, coffee and caffeinated drinks because they cause you to lose fluids.
- Wear glasses instead of contact lenses.
- Apply a skin moisturizer.
- Consider using eye drops
Some people are sensitive to the motion of the aircraft and develop nausea and dizziness. Known as motion sickness, this is more common in smaller aircraft and when facing some level of turbulence along the flight.
- Request a seat over the wings and/or request a window seat.
- Schedule flights on larger airplanes.
- Avoid alcohol for the 24 hours prior to flight and in-flight.
- Consult your physician about motion sickness medication if necessary
On long flights we tend to remain seated for extended periods of time. In susceptible individuals, prolonged periods of immobility can slow down blood flow in the leg veins. This can lead to ankle swelling and, in predisposed individuals, increase the risk of blood clots to form inside the veins, known as Traveler’s Thrombosis.
Traveler’s Thrombosis manifests as pain and/or swelling in the legs during travel or even several days or weeks afterwards. It can be a serious and, on occasion, a life-threatening situation if a clot breaks off and travels to the lungs causing what is called a pulmonary embolism.
Also, staying seated for prolonged periods of time can cause muscle stiffness and pain.
- Wear loose clothing (conversely, avoid tight, restrictive garments).
- Place nothing under the seat in front of you, for more leg space.
- Stretch and periodically exercise your feet and ankles while seated.
- Keep yourself hydrated by drinking water while minimizing alcohol, sugary and caffeinated beverages.
- Consult your physician if you have underlying illness such as recent surgery, cancer, blood clotting disorder or deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
If you would like to learn more, please continue to the Aero Space Medical Association website.