health risks of flying

The benefits of flying keep your mind at ease as you think of all the things you will be doing in the new location. You get to see exotic places, visit friends and relatives you haven’t seen for years and you get to rack up frequent flyer mileage. But there is a downside to flying, especially when you are on long-haul flights going from one continent or country to another. The health risks of flying are well-known but I think it’s worth to collect them all in one place to know what are we dealing with.

Here are some health issues you should know about before you take your next flight.

Minor health risks of flying

The list of health risks includes here are minor as in and of themselves they pose little harm to a passenger. But if left untreated they can contribute to more serious health problems.

  1. Bad breath – You usually do not get the opportunity to brush your teeth when you are flying. Halitosis occurs because the saliva production in your mouth slows down as you fly. Bacteria gets to live longer doing damage to more than just your breath
  2. Ear pain – the changes in air pressure during landing and takeoff can affect your ears. The inability to ease this pressure can lead to severe ear pain or motion sickness.
  3. Jet lag – besides making you extremely tired, jet lag has been linked to many different illnesses. For example, you can get irritable, headaches, nausea, and even suffer from indigestion. If not handled correctly jet lag could lead to heart issues and even serious mood disorders. You can read some more about it in my article about jet lag and how to handle it.
  4. Loss of taste – or some people this may not seem like a health issue, but it can be. Frequent flying has been known to lower the taste bud productivity in your mouth. This reduction makes it harder to distinguish between sweet and salty foods.
  5. Breathing issues – There is also less oxygen available in the cabin of an airplane than in your home. There are also more people breathing that limited oxygen, so you may not be getting enough air in your blood flow. A lower humidity level also exists in the cabin of the airplane which may also contribute to breathing issues.
  6. Swelling – because you do not get a lot of activity when you are sitting in your seat, your lower legs may swell a bit. This includes your feet, ankles, and calves. Low cabin pressure contributes to lower blood pressure which in turn contributes to poorer blood circulation and causes the swelling.

Major health risks of flying

Airlines try very hard to make sure that the environment in the cabin of the plane is as healthy as possible. Unfortunately, they cannot be 100 percent successful and the health risks of flying get a chance to do their dirty work.

Here are some major health risks of flying that you should be aware of:

  1. Dehydration – not having enough moisture in your body does pose a major health risk if you are not careful. The airlines keep moisture levels low in the cabin sometimes making it drier than a desert (below 20%).
  2. Hearing problems – this may depend on where your seat is located in the cabin of the airplane. Airplane engines are noisy, over 95-115 decibels, and the longer the flight the longer your ears are exposed to this noise danger. Safe limits are placed at 88 decibels for 4 hours and 85 for 8 hours. If your flight is long you could suffer some hearing loss if you sit too close to the engines.
  3. Radiation – now for the once in awhile flier, like a tourist, this may not pose as much of a problem as it will for frequent fliers and those passengers on long flights. The radiation effect is due to the fact that the airplane is flying at high altitudes or close to the north pole. Due to less atmospheric protection, you may get more cosmic rays radiation than your body can handle. According to Timothy J. Jorgensen, the radiation dose rate at a typical commercial flight at the altitude of 10,5 km with an average speed of 800 km/h  is 0.003 millisieverts per hour. Multiplying this by hours spent in the air you will get the value of radiation you were exposed to. It means that during 10 hours long-haul flight you will get 0,03 millisieverts. What does it mean for your health? The commonly used estimate is saying that with one mSv the probability of getting cancer increases by 0.005 percent. It means that with one 10 hour long-haul flight this probability increased by 0,00015%.
  4. Constipation – this is painful and not necessarily a minor health risk of flying. When you are sitting for a long time your digestion ability and metabolic rates slow. This means your body can begin to create gases which cause a lot of discomforts and bloating. As well as interfere with normal biological functions.
  5. Deep Vein Thrombosis – That is a fancy term for blood clots. You can get this condition if you sit too long and have too little activity. Dehydration and low cabin pressure also contribute to the development of this medical condition. There is a little good news here.

Usually, this condition does not affect the young or the healthy. Usually, you need some sort of blood health issues before blood clots form. Long-term flying is just a catalyst to help those conditions get worse.

  1. Disease– This is a general, catch-all category for identifying several different major health risks of flying. They say that you can get a cold far faster in an airplane than anywhere else in the world. Not to mention numerous contagious diseases spread by sneezing or body contact with ill passengers.

Then there is the chance of catching some sort of illness from diseases that attach themselves to different foods. One example would be E Coli. Airlines do their best to ensure that you have a healthy flight, but no one is perfect.

There is one honorable mention to these two lists. Be careful of the water you drink when on an airplane. It has been said that up to 15 percent of all water on a plane is contaminated with fecal matter.

This includes the water in the bathroom taps. It is better to use an antibacterial towelette to clean your hands than the water held on a plane. Or just use lots of soap when you use the taps in an airplane toilet.

How to avoid minor health risks of flying

It just takes a little common sense and a few simple habits to help you avoid contracting the minor health risks of flying. Here are a few suggestions to get you on the right track:

  • Bad-breath – try to brush your teeth in flight (don’t forget to pack it) or drink lots of water. In business class, you will get an amenity kit where you can find toothpaste and small toothpaste.
  • Constipation – stay hydrated and find time to move about in your seat. You should also avoid drinking alcohol and caffeine.
  • Losing your taste – go spicy or sour but drink a lot as well.
  • Swelling – wear support socks or stretch your legs in your seat. You can also get up and walk a bit every half hour.
  • Jet lag – control your exposure to the sun. If you are going east, try to limit how much light you get. If you are going west, try to get as much as you can. Read my guide about the best ways to prevent jetlag.
  • Blood clots – try to get up from your seat and move about frequently. Wearing support socks will help as well.
  • Breathing problems – just tell the flight attendant and ask if they can increase the air supply to the cabin.
  • Ear issues – chewing gum is the most recommended relief, or you can yawn a lot. Another method is to close your mouth and nose and blowhard.
  • Dehydration – just drink a lot of water, juices or other noncaffeinated or non-alcoholic drinks.

For more serious diseases, radiation and so on that cannot be treated by a little common sense or simple procedures, check with your doctor. You will need to watch for any warning signs and notify the flight attendants that you may be in need of medical attention.

Or check with your doctor when you have landed. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

A few words of advice

One of the best ways to be a great passenger is to not be part of the problem. You can avoid contracting the health risks of flying if you are not a health risk to others. While some situations and issues cannot be avoided, it is a wise move to make sure you are completely healthy before boarding the aircraft.

Helping others to be healthy is a great way to stop the health risks of flying before they start.  It only takes a few moments, or an hour at your doctor’s, to make sure you are clear from any harmful elements that may cause other people problems on the plane.

Some final words

Flying is nothing to be afraid of. They say it is safer than driving in a car. Why make flying more dangerous when you do not have to? Take the proper steps to avoid contracting any of the health risks of flying.

Exercise a little in your seat. Drink more water, get up and move about. Or yawn more to clear your ears. Bring your own antibacterial tissues and lotions. It doesn’t take much to keep yourself healthy as you fly.

Obviously, you will not be able to avoid all the health risks of flying but you can certainly make it tougher on them to hurt your health. Take the right steps and enjoy your business trip or vacation with peace of mind.

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