Video: The physiological effects of flying

Hopping on a plane and visiting a foreign country is usually a fun and exciting experience, but sometimes the act of sitting down for hours at a time and ascending to 35,000 ft. isn’t as glamorous and relaxing as we’d like.

There are a range of health conditions that can be brought on by flying. See our video below and read expert comment from Dr Sarah Brewer, health author, medical nutritionist and former GP, on why you can feel ill during a flight and what you can do to address such feelings.

Hypoxia

It’s common to feel a little headachy, dizzy or unable to concentrate during a flight, and the medical issue behind this is hypoxia, albeit a mild form. This is when your lungs are unable to take in enough oxygen, which in turn affects your muscles and organs.

It's common to feel a little headachy, dizzy or unable to concentrate during a flight, and the medical issue behind this is hypoxia

It’s common to feel a little headachy, dizzy or unable to concentrate during a flight, and the medical issue behind this is hypoxia

While cabins are pumped full of enough air to sustain its passengers, the air is supplied at a pressure similar to what you’d experience at 2,400 m (8,000 ft.), meaning the air is less dense. For the same amount of oxygen, you have to breathe more. According to Dr Brewer, lower oxygen levels can also contribute to greater jet lag too.

Don’t turn to hyperventilation to beat hypoxia though. Dr Brewer’s flight advice is to ensure “that you are well-rested and drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids before and during the journey.”

Bad breath

Because of the dry and oxygen-deprived conditions of an aircraft cabin, your mouth can dry out during a flight, causing bacteria to grow. To deal with the subsequent smells, try and eat healthy foods, drink lots of water and brush your teeth if necessary.

Ankle swelling and deep vein thrombosis

If you’ve ever felt your ankles swelling up during a flight or had this problem to such a painful extent that you were diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis, you’ll be glad to know that there are lots of things you can do to protect yourself against the formation of blood clots – the cause of the issues.

Clots are caused by the twin pressures of low cabin pressure and lack of movement, so be sure to follow our hypoxia advice above

Clots are caused by the twin pressures of low cabin pressure and lack of movement, so be sure to follow our hypoxia advice above

“The distribution of fluids in the body changes with low cabin pressure,” says Dr Brewer. “Sitting in one position for a long time increases pressure on the veins in your legs, which causes fluid to leave the blood and into the surrounding soft tissues, causing your feet and ankles to swell.”

Clots are caused by the twin pressures of low cabin pressure and lack of movement, so be sure to follow our hypoxia advice above, and don’t forget to take a stroll around the cabin or move your legs around to keep your muscles moving and circulation pumping. Wearing loose clothes and compression or below-knee stockings can also work well.


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Hearing loss

Aircrafts are very noisy places – sounds can often range between 95 and 105 decibels, rising to 115 during take-off – and sometimes this can lead to hearing loss, especially if you fly a lot. To safeguard your ears, invest in noise-cancelling earphones or sit towards the front of the plane, as the rear is usually louder.

Reduced taste

We all know that aeroplane food doesn’t taste particularly delicious, especially since it’s freeze-dried before take-off and heated up without the grills, pans and other bits of kitchenware usually associated with great flavour. This is only part of the story, however.

If you can’t wait till you reach your destination, be sure to stay hydrated, or stick to sour, bitter and spicy foods to get your flavour kick

If you can’t wait till you reach your destination, be sure to stay hydrated, or stick to sour, bitter and spicy foods to get your flavour kick

During a flight, the rapid pressure changes and particularly dry cabin air combine to dry out your nasal mucous membranes and taste buds, greatly reducing your ability to taste. Salty and sweet foods, in particular, are most affected.

If you can’t wait till you reach your destination, be sure to stay hydrated, or stick to sour, bitter and spicy foods to get your flavour kick.

Constipation

Another health problem that’s common on longer flights, constipation occurs because our metabolic and digestive systems slow down during long periods of sitting. To speed them up, try drinking water (not alcohol or caffeinated drinks), and move your body from side to side in a twisting motion.

Motion sickness

For some of us, looking pale, feeling dizzy and vomiting come part and parcel with flying. Much like motion sickness in cars, buses and trains, in the air the problems happen as a result of the differences between what your inner ears, responsible for balance, feel, and what your eyes see. Your inner ears think you’re sat still, but your eyes know you’re taking off at breakneck speed, or that the aircraft is banking steeply.

Much like motion sickness in cars, buses and trains, in the air the problems happen as a result of the differences between what your inner ears, responsible for balance, feel, and what your eyes see

Much like motion sickness in cars, buses and trains, in the air the problems happen as a result of the differences between what your inner ears, responsible for balance, feel, and what your eyes see

With most people, the effects of motion sickness subside after some time, but this can be sped up by taking sickness medication, sitting still or looking at stable objects within the cabin.

Illnesses

As you might imagine, aircraft cabins are a real breeding ground for viruses. According to a study posted in the Journal of Environmental Health Research in 2004, the chance of developing the common cold is over 100 times greater on a flight than on ground level. To stop yourself getting an illness, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and wash your hands.

Fatigue and irritability

On long-haul journeys in particular, it’s easy to become angry and annoyed – two classic symptoms of jet lag. This common problem happens when you visit an area with different time zone to the one your body is used to. The further you fly, the worse your sleeping pattern is affected, and the worse you feel. The effects can also persist for hours after the flight.

. The further you fly, the worse your sleeping pattern is affected, and the worse you feel

The further you fly, the worse your sleeping pattern is affected, and the worse you feel

“Jet lag is a result of a disturbance in the body’s 24 hour sleep-wake biorhythms and is most likely to affect those who normally follow an established daily routine”, explains Dr Brewer.

“If you’re flying east, try going to bed earlier than usual for several nights before travelling. If you’re going west, stay up later. It takes between half a day and two days to adjust to each time zone crossed and breaking up a very long journey with a stopover for rest can make it easier to adjust.”

According to Dr Brewer, there are a range of other steps you can take to combat jet lag, including taking Guarana and Rhodiola extracts, as well as vitamins B, C and D. For more information, visit www.DrSarahBrewer.com.

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1 comment for “Video: The physiological effects of flying

  1. Moira Hargreaves
    12/03/2017 at 8:41 am

    Surely it’s the other way round. Your inner ears know you are moving but your eyes tell you you’re sitting still. Hence years ago when children sat low in cars lots of them were car sick but now they are in higher car seats and can look out ears and eyes are giving concordant messages and sickness is less common (unless they are glued to screen or book)

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