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Air Travel Health Risks—and How to Avoid Them

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The number of people traveling by aircraft worldwide is already more than 1 billion a year—and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this number is expected to double in the next two decades. This means that many more people will be exposed to some of the health risks involved with flying.When we fly, the different air conditions and pressure can affect our bodies—in a way that can sometimes negatively affect our health over an extended period of time. Here are some things that can happen to frequent fliers, and how you can prevent them. But in addition to our recommendations, it is essential that you should always consult your own personal physician first for his/her guidance and recommendations.

Punctured Lungs

Cabin pressure inside an airplane is typically maintained at an equivalent to 6,000-8,000 feet above sea level, which means that the air is relatively thin. As the plane climbs to 30,000 feet, decompression in the air can cause gas in the lungs to expand, instead of escaping naturally with an exhale. In rare cases for those who have asthma or lung diseases, the air can become trapped, form a bubble, and dangerously puncture the lung.

  • Asthmatics should make sure they are symptom-free before they fly and use their inhalers more frequently around the time of travel.
  • For those with other cardiopulmonary diseases, you will want to check with your doctor before flying.

Stomach Pains

As mentioned, gas expands as the airplane ascends, which may cause stomach pains. To add insult to injury, eating too fast can cause more air to be ingested into our intestines, and when this air expands, it can cause serious discomfort.

  • Before flying, avoid foods that cause a buildup of gas, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, apples, or beans.
  • Avoid rushed meals before the flight.
  • Try eating peppermints, which can help absorb gases.
  • To release trapped gas, lean forward on your left knee, and then sit up again. This lets gas rise up, instead of down.

Blood Clots or Deep Vein Thrombosis

Sitting for prolonged periods in the same position, even for a few hours, can increase the risk of developing a blood clot, or Deep Vein Thrombosis, in the lower extremities. Blood clots can form when the blood becomes thick and sluggish, due to immobility. Clots in the deep veins of our legs are especially dangerous because they can dislodge and travel to your heart. The symptoms of blood clots include swelling of your leg, pain or tenderness, warm skin, and redness—and these symptoms are not to be ignored.

Some of us are more prone to this than others, including those who are over the age of 40, those who smoke, are obese, had recent surgery or injury, use estrogen-containing contraceptives, are pregnant, have active cancer, have limited mobility, have a family history of blood clots, or have varicose veins.

  • Get up and walk around the cabin at least once an hour to keep blood circulating.
  • Do ankle pumps—basically an exercise that involves alternately flexing and pointing your toes.
  • Avoid taking sleeping pills, which may cause you to be immobile in a vertical position for an extended period of time, unless you can sleep horizontally.
  • Put carry-on luggage in the overhead bin to increase legroom.
  • Wear comfortable, non-restricting clothes.
  • Avoid crossing your legs.
  • For those who are more at risk, talk to your doctor about wearing compression stockings.

Ear Pain

When air pressure changes, your middle ear adjusts accordingly to ease the stress placed on the eardrum, but when air pressure changes rapidly, the middle ear struggles to keep up. This is why you might feel pressure or even pain when ascending or descending, which is usually worse when you have a cold. In severe cases, you might even need to see a doctor, but usually this discomfort can be absolved easily.

  • Yawning, sucking sweets, chewing gum, or swallowing repeatedly can help your ears “pop”—or release the pressure.
  • If you have a cold, try to take a nasal decongestant spray before traveling.
  • Avoid sleeping during takeoff and landing, so you can focus on swallowing and clearing the pressure.
  • If swallowing or yawning doesn’t work, try the “Valsalva Maneuver.” Pinch your nostrils and keep your mouth closed while gently—we mean very gently—blowing air into your nasal passages as if you were blowing your nose.

Dehydration

Aircraft cabin air is typically dry—with only about 10 to 20 percent humidity. This is because the plane pumps in air from the outside—which, at 30,000 feet is very dry—to dilute the carbon dioxide that builds up inside the cabin. This dry air tends to cause dryness of the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, and throat. And the effects of dehydration are more than general discomfort—dehydration can also compromise your immune system.

  • Drink plenty of fluids on the plane.
  • Avoid coffee, alcohol, and the salty snacks, which can exacerbate dehydration.
  • Bring TSA-approved—less than 3.4 oz—containers of Vaseline, saline nasal spray, eye drops, chapstick, and lotion to keep your skin hydrated.
  • Some people even suggest bringing an eye mask and skipping the movie to prevent dry eyes.

For more information about how you can stay healthy while traveling, check out:

By Jessica May Tang for PeterGreenberg.com

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