Travel Health: How to Fight 7 In-Flight Ailments

With travel comes health risks, but you can take steps to stay healthy in transit.

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As you pack your bags, remove your shoes at security, and kill time at the gate, your health is likely the last thing on your mind. But the fact is that traveling, whether for work or play, can take its toll on your physical condition. Here are seven health problems you might encounter in transit along with tips for avoiding them.

Jet Lag

You're bound to experience sleep deprivation or fatigue while traveling, especially if you're swapping one time zone for another. Jet lag results when your internal clock is disrupted by irregular light schedules, making you feel wide awake when you should be asleep—and vice versa. Jet lag often results in sleep deprivation, symptoms of which generally include loss of concentration, decreased motivation, irritation, and reduced physical and mental capabilities. Depending on how many time zones you're crossing, jet lag can last for up to several days after your trip.

How to fight it: Avoiding caffeine, drinking juice or wine, eating less… everyone has a trick for curing jet lag. Truth is: There is no cure, but there are ways to bounce back more quickly. If you're traveling east, you lose sunlight, meaning fewer nighttime hours for shut-eye. For east-bound trips, skip the in-flight movie and instead follow your bedtime routine as closely as possible, trying to fall asleep as soon as it's dark outside. If you're traveling west, you'll gain hours of sunlight, so do your best to stay awake for the entire flight.

[See: 13 Reasons Not to Skimp on Sleep]

Airplane Ear

Most people experience middle-ear discomfort—aching and muffled hearing—while flying. This is caused when the cabin's air pressure gets thrown out of sync with the air pressure within your ears, preventing your eardrum from vibrating as it should. "Airplane ear" generally occurs during rapid changes in altitude, such as take-off and landing. In most cases, airplane ear is harmless and will go away once the pressure stabilizes, but occasionally, you can suffer vertigo (a spinning sensation), tinnitus (ringing in the ear), or even a ruptured eardrum.

How to fight it: Yawning, swallowing, chewing gum, or wearing filtered earplugs (designed to slowly equalize pressure in your ears during take-off and landing) are all ways to help your Eustachian tube—a small canal connecting your middle ear to the back of your nasal cavity—regulate the pressure within your ear. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol and drinking plenty of water will reduce the chances of eardrum rupture. Traveling while congested can worsen airplane ear, so try to avoid flying if you have a cold, sinus infection, or ear infection. If changing your plans isn't an option, you can lend your Eustachian tube a hand by taking decongestants about an hour before take-off.

[See: 4 Reasons Your Pilot Needs More Sleep]

Viruses

You're settling down in your seat when you hear it: The lady behind you sneezes while the guy across the aisle is hacking up a lung. And few things spread airborne viruses more quickly than close quarters and recycled air. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Research in 2004 reported that airplane passengers are 113 times more likely to get sick after flying than they are in everyday circumstances. That's because passengers are exposed to a viral load that's higher than usual, and full airplanes provide the smallest volume of available air per person.

How to fight it: While you can't choose the people you fly with, you can take steps to limit your exposure to their germs. While packing, store carry-on items in sealable bags; Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials handle hundreds of passenger items every day, and viruses can easily be transferred during security checks. Get plenty of sleep the night before traveling to help boost your immune system, and drink plenty of water during the flight to increase your body's ability to fight infections. Immune-boosting supplements containing vitamin C may also help. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you should also get an annual flu shot, just in case.