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.
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.
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.
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.
Like viruses, allergens run rampant on airplanes. In such a small space, it's nearly impossible to avoid airborne allergens like pollen and even pet dander. But the larger concern here is food allergies, particularly peanuts. In 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration unsuccessfully attempted to ban peanuts on airplanes in response to the growing number of complaints from allergic passengers. While some airlines have switched to serving pretzels or cookies, many defend their legume service, claiming that passengers still demand the old stand-by snack.
How to fight it: To battle allergy attacks on airplanes, you must be proactive. If you are affected by airborne allergens, take medication about an hour before taking off, suggests the Mayo Clinic. You can also sport a protective face mask; it may not be the most stylish accessory, but it'll keep your nasal passage allergen free. If you have food allergies, you can request specially prepared meals when you reserve your seat. And as for those pesky peanuts, most airlines will accommodate you by serving a non-peanut snack if notified in advance. Flight attendants can also set up a "buffer zone" by serving non-peanut snacks to anyone seated near you.
Ever wonder where your airplane meal comes from? Well first, each meal is prepared in an on-the-ground flight kitchen, much like a catered meal is prepared before an event. The food is then rapidly chilled and stored until it's ready to be packaged. Once it's portioned and packed, meals are delivered to the gate, loaded onto planes, warmed, and served to passengers. While there are food-safety regulations in place, the complexity of this system leaves room for mistakes, like improper storage temperatures and cooking techniques, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
How to fight it: The answer is simple: Bring your own food. The only way to guarantee a food-poisoning-free flight is to avoid the airplane meals altogether.
Every time you fly, you're subjecting yourself to stress, which can lower your immunity. Getting to the airport in time, coping with luggage, navigating security, adjusting to cramped conditions, and dealing with a lack of sleep is a lot to handle in a short time frame. And if you're afraid of flying or prone to air rage—extreme misconduct on airplanes usually caused by inability to handle the stressful situation—you could be in for a very long trip.
How to fight it: Take steps to reduce stress throughout your trip: Arrive at the airport several hours before your flight to avoid feeling rushed, and pack light to minimize the number of bags you need to check. While in transit, employ stress-relief techniques (like deep breathing and counting to 10) and distraction methods, like reading a book or playing a game. Phobias (such as a fear of heights or a fear of cramped spaces) are tougher to conquer; if you're unable to cope with your fears on your own, experts suggest that you may want to consider therapy to learn to manage situations like flying. If you're prone to air rage, make sure you get plenty of sleep before your trip and practice stress-relief techniques when you feel overwhelmed.
Deep Vein Thrombosis
Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) is a fancy term to describe the formation of blood clots caused by long periods of immobility. DVT is often referred to as "economy class syndrome" in reference to the cramped conditions you'll experience while flying coach. Clots usually develop in your arms and legs. The larger the clot is, the more it restricts blood flow between your heart and the rest of your body, which can cause paralysis, stroke, or heart attack.
How to fight it: The most obvious way to prevent blood clots is to move. A brisk walk before boarding will get your blood flowing, while simple exercises like leg lifts, flexing, and ankle and shoulder rolls will help keep your blood moving throughout the flight. Elastic flight socks (available at most pharmacies) can also help prevent DVT. Those who are at a higher risk of blood clots as a result of obesity, cancer, pulmonary embolism, or smoking should talk to their doctor, who may prescribe blood thinners to prevent in-flight DVT.