- Written by Kimberly Blaker Kimberly Blaker
About 1 out of every 600 flights has an in-flight medical emergency, according to a 2019 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Travelers can experience a host of less serious health issues and discomfort when flying as well.
Many of these health risks and problems can be avoided, however, if travelers are aware and take precautions.
Dehydration. The humidity level of airplanes is extremely low, usually under 10%. Combine this with the water loss caused by respiration, and passengers can become dehydrated enough to affect their health and mood. So drink plenty of water before, during, and following your flight.
Tight clothing. When flying, several factors contribute to the risk of deep vein thrombosis (a blood clot that can be life-threatening). Add tight clothes to the mix, and you could be in real trouble.
I experienced this myself on an international flight. My legs swelled up just a couple of hours into the flight, which was aggravated by my skinny jeans. To reduce the restriction and prevent a blood clot, I had to slit the legs of my pants from top to bottom.
So when flying, wear loose-fitting clothes, particularly on your lower extremities. Also, avoid high heels and tight shoes, which can also restrict blood flow.
Sitting too long. Similar to the problem with tight clothing, this also increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis. It’s particularly problematic when flying because of the cramped seats that allow little room for movement.
Passengers should get up and move around after three to four hours in flight (sooner if they begin to experience swelling or discomfort), according to Fanancy Anzalone, M.D., an aerospace medicine physician.
Anzalone says even flexing your legs in your seat by “pressing down on your heels and up with your toes” can help get your circulation moving.
Ear pain. Air pressure in your middle ear during the ascent and descent can make your ears feel clogged or even painful. Usually, chewing gum, yawning, or swallowing relieves the pressure.
But serious cases of airplane ear can lead to severe pain, hearing loss, vertigo, bleeding from the ear, and more. In such cases, you’ll need to see your doctor for treatment.
Constipation. Sitting still for long periods, dehydration, and a schedule change that conflicts with your regular bowel movements can contribute to constipation when flying.
So, 12 hours before your flight, eat something high in fiber. Also, adjust your routine on the day of travel so your bowels can move before you leave for the airport. You can also take a stool softener the day before your flight.
Dry skin and more. The dryer-than-the-desert air of airplane cabins contributes not only to dry skin, but also dry eyes, nostrils, and lips.
The first thing to do is start hydrating the day before your flight by drinking lots of water. Then continue hydrating right on through your flight.
Also, avoid salty foods before and during your flight, and carry lip and moisturizing lotion.
Lung conditions. People with any lung condition including, but not limited to, COPD, emphysema, severe asthma, or a lower respiratory infection, are at higher risk of serious complications when flying. That’s because oxygen in the air decreases at high altitudes.
If you have any lung condition or even heart or circulatory conditions, consult with your physician before scheduling a flight. Flying is often not recommended for people with these conditions.
Blood pressure. Generally, flying is safe for those with high blood pressure. Still, if you have high blood pressure, Penn Medicine, in “5 Things to Know before You Fly,” recommends you take precautions.
Get up and move around while in flight. Also, avoid salty snacks, alcohol, and sedatives before and during your flight. Be sure to carry your blood pressure medication with you as well. If your hypertension is more serious, consult with your doctor before flying.
Colds, flu, and viruses. When you have a cold or sinus infection, it increases the risk of middle ear pain caused by cabin pressure. So this may not be the best time to fly. If you do fly, follow the suggestions for airplane ear above.
Also, if you fly with one of these ailments, which are highly contagious, it puts other passengers at risk. This can be especially serious for passengers with weakened immune systems, certain health conditions, and the elderly. So if you’re infected, postpone your trip if possible.
If you must fly and are particularly at risk for serious illnesses such as coronavirus, you can research the measures each airline is taking to reduce your risk for COVID-19 and choose the airline with the most stringent precautions.
When you fly, protect yourself and others by wearing a fitted mask with multiple layers for added protection or, better yet, an N95 mask.
Kimberly Blaker is a freelance writer. She also owns an online store, Sage Rare & Collectible Books, specializing in out-of-print, scarce, signed, and first editions; fine bindings; ephemera; and more at sagerarebooks.com.