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Stay Healthy on a Plane

Stretching Arms, Airplane Cabin, Stay Healthy on a Plane


Stay healthy on a plane by stretching, even if you're seated.

It’s not like you don’t already have a lot to deal with when you fly: delays, overbooked flights, TSA rules, snakes in the cabin — well, maybe not the last one. But flying is filled with inconveniences, expected and not. And, enclosed in a capsule at 35,000 feet, health concerns abound. With adequate knowledge and preparation, though, you can stay healthy on a plane.

First, know your limits: if you have a critical illness, are suffering from an active infection or have had recent surgery, you shouldn’t fly. Second, know that the crew is trained in basic emergency measures, such as CPR, and that most commercial planes have a well-stocked medical kit that can be used by trained medical personnel who happen to be aboard. (I have assisted medically on many flights and have used this kit’s advanced medications and IVs to stabilize critically ill passengers.)

Third, know how to avoid getting sick. Here are a few air-travel conditions that you can alleviate or prevent.

1. Deep Venous Thrombosis

We’ve all heard about these deadly blood clots, but what are they? Related primarily to immobility for a prolonged period of time, DVTs occur when blood pools and then clots in deep veins of the legs. The real danger is these clots breaking off and traveling to the lungs. Certain things increase your risk of DVT, among them chronic medical conditions, previous blood clots, cancer and obesity.

So what to do? Stay as active as possible. Even while sitting in your cramped seat, there are leg exercises you can do to increase circulation. When the captain says it’s safe to move around the cabin, then, do! If you’re on a very long flight, do so more often. Compression stockings or socks can also help prevent clots, as can staying hydrated and avoiding alcohol and caffeine.

2. Conditions Related to Cabin Air and Pressure

The dry, recycled cabin air irritates mucous membranes and causes painful sinus-cavity pressure to build. This is a tremendous annoyance, particularly to people with colds, sinus infections and chronic sinus conditions.

Of course, it’s best to avoid air travel when you’re sick, but if you can’t do so, or you’re prone to sinus problems, moisten your nasal passages with a saline spray. Also, although pressurized for comfort, an airplane still has a pressure level equivalent to a Rocky Mountain town.

This can cause fatigue, body aches, headaches and bloating. Adequate hydration is a good way to minimize these problems. Finally, that extreme pressure and popping in your ears during ascent and descent is related to both the change in pressure and air movement for equalization in the ear structures. Chewing gum, yawning and moving your lower jaw forward allow the movement of air to take place and avoid sinus “squeeze.”

3. Crowds and Infection

So, the guy in seat 24B is coughing and sneezing incessantly, and you’re sitting in 24C! There are a few things you can do to decrease your chances of contracting viral and other illnesses from fellow air passengers. First, try politely requesting a move to another seat. Whether you get to move or not, wash regularly with antibacterial gel (not the lavatory water — it too can be contaminated). Armrests, tray tables and seat pockets are filled with germs. Again, antibacterial gel (brought aboard following the TSA’s 3-1-1 guidelines, of course) can help. Note that, although several over-the-counter medications claim to nip colds in the bud, no medical studies have definitively shown them to be effective.

4. Motion Sickness

Motion sickness, although not unique to air travel, will make your trip miserable. Some people are more sensitive to it than others (you know who you are!) and can take preventative measures even before the flight. Choose seats in the middle of the plane, where movement is less pronounced. Consult your physician about over-the-counter and prescription medications (the behind-the-ear patch, for example) that help prevent motion sickness. And, again, stay hydrated and avoid alcohol and caffeine before and during a flight.

5. Jet Lag

Traversing time zones can be difficult, even for seasoned travelers. There are a few ways to limit the malaise caused by disturbing the sleep cycle. Drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol and caffeine (we really can’t say this enough). Get as much rest as possible prior to your flight, and eat light meals during it. At your destination, re-synchronize your body by getting as much sunlight during the day as possible and by getting at least four hours of sleep at night. Sleep aids, including the supplement melatonin (which hasn’t been fully studied), should only be used after consulting your physician.

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