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7 Ways Airplane Travel Affects Your Body and How to Prepare

Dec 02, 2023
7 Ways Airplane Travel Affects Your Body and How to Prepare
There’s no quicker way to traverse the country — or world — than flying. However, your body can pay a price for air travel. Learn how flying impacts your body and the steps you can take to mitigate the effects.

Whether you’re flying from Florida to New York to spend the holidays with family or jetting to Colorado to hit the slopes, air travel can take a toll on your body. 

Fluctuating cabin air pressure, temperature, oxygen levels, and low humidity are all factors that affect your body's normal functions. They can cause issues ranging from bad breath to swollen ankles and a lot in between.  

The medical team at Healthstone Primary Care, with three Florida locations, wants you to understand how air travel impacts your body and provide tips for a safe and healthy holiday excursion. 

1. Heightens stress level

Even before stepping on the aircraft, you encounter multiple stressors, from long lines to schlepping heavy luggage across the airport. Once on board, you may be squeezed between overly chatty strangers or in front of a toddler fond of kicking your seat. 

Minimize stress by planning as much as possible. Pack your medications in your carry-on instead of checked luggage to prevent them from getting lost. 

2. Jet lag

Your body clock is thrown out of whack when traveling between different time zones, affecting your sleep and alertness, causing daytime fatigue and mood changes.

Although the barometric pressure of the cabin is adjusted to prevent altitude sickness, it still may differ from your usual environment. As a result, you may feel sleepy or develop an airplane headache. 

Prevent headaches by drinking plenty of water and avoiding alcohol and caffeine.

3. Dehydration 

Airplane cabins have extremely low humidity levels, as 50% of the cabin's air comes from the outside, and the air is nearly devoid of moisture at high altitudes. This can promote a dry throat, nose, and skin.

Drink more water. Wear glasses instead of contact lenses and pack lotion, eye drops, and nasal spray in your carry-on.

Airplane acne

Oil can get trapped under the skin while trying to secrete more to combat the dryness, sometimes causing pimples. These breakouts usually disappear in a few days.

Bad breath

Bad breath is a side effect of dehydration. Saliva has antibacterial properties, which helps to keep your mouth clean and bacteria away. You can aid the production of saliva by chewing gum.

4. Vacation constipation

A change in bowel movements is common. It can start because of limited bathroom access on the plane and may continue through your trip as a result of dietary changes.

To prepare, before traveling, eat foods with probiotics (kimchi, tempeh, and yogurt), as they contain good bacteria that help digestion. During travel, exercise and avoid processed or sugary snacks and instead go for high-fiber options like nuts and fruit. And, as previously mentioned, drink plenty of water.

5. Exposure to germs

Airlines have advanced filtering systems that remove most bacteria, fungi, and viruses from the air. The risk comes from being around large groups of people in close proximity, any of whom may be harboring germs and viruses. 

You can easily catch something from other passengers coughing, sneezing, or breathing nearby.

To best protect yourself, get essential vaccines such as the flu shot, COVID-19, or RSV at least two weeks prior to travel. 

We also recommend carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer or a package of wipes to sanitize your hands, trays, and armrests. Consider wearing a mask.

6. Airplane ear

The cabin's fluctuating pressure causes your inner ear's air pressure to adapt, which helps maintain your balance. But during takeoff and landing, when external pressure changes rapidly, it can place stress on the middle ear tissue and Eustachian tubes. This is why your ears might pop. The imbalance can also cause motion sickness or muffled hearing. Yawning, swallowing or chewing gum may help. For babies,  a pacifier or a bottle of milk can be helpful.

7. Swollen feet and ankles

Sitting in cramped quarters for hours can affect blood flow throughout your body, leading to swelling in your feet and ankles. 

There’s also an increased risk of developing a blood clot called deep vein thrombosis (DVT) during plane travel. 

Travelers without pre-existing conditions may benefit from ankle rotations, flexions, and seat extensions as frequently as possible. 

Risk factors for DVT include being obese, pregnant or postpartum, on birth control pills, over age 40, or having a severe medical illness. 

Those with underlying risk factors for DVT should wear compression stockings and should ask their medical provider about using anticoagulant drugs.

More pro tips for staying healthy on airplanes

If you aren’t feeling well, consider postponing air travel. Inflammation from a cold or allergies can block your Eustachian tubes, preventing your ears from equalizing pressure during takeoff and landing, leading to pain and potential ear damage.

For more information about staying healthy during air travel or to book pre-travel vaccines, contact Heatherstone Primary Care. Call the location closest to you. We have offices in Weston, Pembroke Pines, or Davie, Florida, or request an appointment via the online booking tool.