Health risks of a long plane ride
Although you may think the biggest problem on your eight-hour flight from New York to London is boredom, there are actual health problems that can arise from being thousands of feet in the air for extended periods of time.
Kara Jones-Schubart, DNP, FNP-BC, RN, a nurse practitioner and clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing, offers tips to avoid these health risks that can occur when you’ve been seated in the upright and locked position for too long.
A common problem many people will experience on those long flights is dehydration. At higher altitudes, the air is less humid, and air filtered throughout the plane is drier than typically seen on the ground. The air inside the cabin of a plane can have humidity levels of 10 to 20 percent, which is substantially lower than typical indoor humidity of 30 to 65 percent.
“Staying hydrated is very important,” said Jones-Schubart. “Avoid caffeinated beverages and alcohol, which can actually dehydrate you faster.”
Dehydration can cause a wide variety of problems, ranging from mild skin discomfort and feeling sluggish to more severe issues, such as difficulty breathing, for people who have respiratory conditions like asthma.
If you want to fight off dehydration, be sure to drink plenty of water during the flight and snack on foods with high water content, such as apples or strawberries. Use non-alcohol based moisturizers, eye drops and saline nasal spray to keep your body from feeling the effects of the changed environment.
Nothing can ruin a trip like getting sick. Catching a bug 30,000 feet in the air seems inevitable given the cramped spaces and recycled air, but if you take some preventive measures, you should walk off the tarmac healthy and ready to start your vacation.
Keep sanitary wipes in your carry-on luggage so you can wipe your armrest or tray tables, get plenty of sleep before your trip and stay hydrated to keep your immune system in peak condition.
READ MORE: How to avoid travel germs
If you’re sitting next to a passenger who seems to be contagious, excuse yourself and quietly ask an attendant for assistance, who can give the passenger a surgical mask to reduce the spread of infection or relocate that person to a more isolated area if available.
Do your part to keep diseases from spreading as well. Be sure to cough into your elbow and away from others if you are feeling ill. Keep hand sanitizer available and make sure that you wash your hands properly, with warm water, soap and friction, after using the restroom.
Your trips to the bathroom may seem like simple strolls to break the monotony of a long flight, but they really are the only exercise you’re likely to get in a several hour span. Sitting in a crammed seat may just seem uncomfortable, but immobility and dehydration are both risk factors for developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or a blood clot, usually in the leg, that can loosen and lodge in the lungs or heart. Swelling or leg pain can indicate DVT, but it can also present without symptoms, which makes limiting risk factors very important.
“Common risk factors for DVT are dehydration, immobility, underlying vascular disease and being on birth control pills,” Jones-Schubart said. “The best way to limit your risk is to keep hydrated and walk around as much as is permitted; this will keep your blood flowing normally and decrease risk of clotting.”
If you begin to notice that your ankles and feet are swollen by the time you land, that can be attributed to a long flight with limited mobility. “Improper blood flow to your ankles and feet can cause swelling,” Jones-Schubart said. “Stretching out your feet, ankles and calves by walking or while seated can help regulate blood flow.”
Doing lunges up and down the aisles isn’t necessary, but walking up and down the cabin and stretching your body are good ways to get much-needed exercise in between the complimentary peanuts.
Talk to your health care provider
If you are concerned about your health and imminent long flights, Jones-Schubart recommends talking to your primary health provider. “Your primary care provider can tell you the best approach for your long flight,” she said.
Keeping a healthy lifestyle can help limit potential risks that can arise while flying. If you have conditions that increase risks for blood clots, talk to your primary care provider about precautions that could be taken before or during your flight.