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Air Travel Advice

Whether you are going on a business trip or off on holiday, there are a number of potential health problems to watch out for when flying. Dr Sneh Khemka, medical director at Bupa International, offers advice on how you can prepare for your next flight.

  • Air Travel Advice

    Keep the following tips in mind for a healthy flight and you should feel fresh and ready to go at your destination.

    Before you even step on a plane your health may be put to the test. Packing, travelling to the airport, long queues at the check-in desk and delays can raise your heart rate and stress levels. So how can you have a stress-free flight? Allow plenty of time to get to the airport and plan your trip in advance. Once onboard, settle back and relax as much as possible. The in-flight videos offering relaxation tips are very useful, and can help you relax and sleep.

    Deep Vein Thrombosis
    Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is when a blood clot forms in one of your deep veins, usually in your leg. Flying may increase your risk of DVT by slowing blood flow and causing it to collect in your legs. However, it’s not limited to flying - anyone who sits in the same position for a long period of time can develop DVT.

    So how can you reduce your risk? Chances are you may have worn compression stockings (flight socks) on a plane. These work by applying gentle pressure to your legs and improving blood flow. Flight socks can help if you’re travelling for at least six hours and you’re at an increased risk of DVT – for example, if you’re over 40, very overweight, pregnant or have previously had a blood clot . The stockings come in various sizes and different levels of compression; Class I to III. Class I stockings should be enough for your flight - but make sure they fit correctly. Walking around the cabin, especially if you’re pregnant and doing lower leg exercises in your seat are simple options that may also help. You may have taken aspirin to help reduce your risk of developing DVT. However, my opinion is that there isn’t enough evidence to show that it has a significant effect when flying, and it could potentially do more harm than good.

    Airborne Diseases
    It may surprise you to know that you’re no more likely to catch an infection when flying compared with in any other environment. The air in the cabin passes through filters that trap bacteria and viruses – similar to the filters used in operating theatres to keep the air clean. If you’re feeling under the weather after your flight, the air in the cabin isn’t to blame. It’s probably because you have caught a virus or infection from sitting close to people. If you’re feeling unwell, the best way to prevent infections from spreading is to delay your journey until you have recovered.

    Ear Problems
    You may be familiar with pain and pressure in your ears during take off or landing. As the plane climbs, the pressure in the cabin decreases, causing air to escape from your middle ear and sinuses. When the plane descends, air must flow back into your ear to equalise the pressure differences. If this doesn’t happen, your ears will feel blocked and painful. Often the best ways to equalise pressure are the simple remedies of chewing gum or yawning.

    Dry Skin and Eyes
    Low humidity in the aircraft cabin can lead to dry skin and eyes. Applying moisturiser and wearing glasses instead of contact lenses should help to prevent dryness. If you’re lucky enough to fly first or business class, you may have the benefit of expensive lotions and potions in your flight travel kit. It’s a myth that low humidity reduces your fluid levels ( and causes dehydration. You may be tempted by the free tea and coffee on-board but try to limit these and also how much alcohol you drink – too much can lead to dehydration during long-haul flights. Drinking water should help to keep your fluid levels topped up.

    Jet Lag
    Once you arrive at your destination, you may need to go straight to a business meeting, or catch up with friends and family. But if you fly across several different time zones, your body's normal circadian rhythms (also known as your body clock) can become out of sync. It can take your body several days to adjust to the new rhythm of daylight and darkness – known as jet lag. To try to ease this, if you’re flying east, sleep on the plane if it’s night time at your destination and don’t sleep during the day when you arrive. If you’re going west, try to stay awake for as long as possible. You may have heard of a hormone called melatonin that is produced naturally in your body and tells your brain it's time to sleep. Although it’s available in some countries to help with jet lag, it isn't licensed as a medicine in the UK and little is known of its long-term effects. I don’t take it myself or recommend it to others. Taking sleeping tablets for the first few nights when you arrive at your destination may help you to sleep soundly. However, don’t take them during your flight – if you’re asleep and not moving around for a long time, this can increase your risk of DVT.

    Children & Flying
    It’s fine to take babies on flights a week or two after they are born. Although flying shouldn’t pose any particular health risks to youngsters, the baby may have difficulty equalising pressure. Breast or bottle feeding your baby, or giving your child a drink during take off and landing, can help.

    Sources and further reading:
    Mode of travel: Health considerations. World Health Organisation.
    The impact of flying on passenger health: a guide for healthcare professionals. British Medical Association.
    FAQ: Cabin air quality: What is the quality of air on board an aircraft? Civil Aviation Authority.
    Medical Guidelines for Airline Travel. Aerospace Medical Association.