What a flight really does to your body.
It's meant to be the start of a well-earned break. But could the
flight to your holiday destination pose a greater health risk than the
standards of hygiene that await you? According to the Aviation Health
Institute, the number of passengers each year who die after being taken ill
during flights equals those killed in aircraft accidents.
As a result, airline companies have come under strong pressure to improve in-flight medical facilities. Here are the flight hazards to be aware of...
Medical evidence suggests that sitting in the same position during a flight,
even for a few hours, can increase your risk of developing a blood clot - or
deep vein thrombosis (DVT) - in the leg.
The clot prevents blood flowing past it, causing the limb to swell. Should
it dislodge, the clot can travel via the veins and block the blood supply to
the lungs - this is a pulmonary embolism and can be fatal.
A British holidaymaker last year had a leg amputated after suffering a
Doctors at London's Middlesex Hospital are investigating whether
insufficient leg room, cabin pressure and oxygen concentration could cause
The solution: The British Heart Foundation advises passengers on flights
of more than two hours to walk about at regular intervals to keep blood
flowing in the legs. You may also benefit from wearing support stockings,
which help blood to flow against gravity.
As with blood clots, long periods of inactivity can lead to a buildup of
fluid around your ankles and feet. Overweight people are more at risk.
The solution: Swelling can be avoided by 'jiggling your legs, or bouncing
your feet up and down on your toes, every 20 minutes', says travel health
expert George Walker. 'It gets the circulation going.'
Travellers, particularly with high blood pressure, can an arrhythmia - or irregular heart beat - which can be fuelled by excess alcohol and coffee, during lengthy airport waits, for example.
The solution: Cut down on coffee and alcohol, especially in the run-up to
a flight. Avoid bingeing on booze in the days before you are due to travel.
As an aircraft climbs, decompression can cause gas in the lungs to expand
which normally escapes naturally.
But in a small number of cases where asthma symptoms are present, it can
become trapped and form a bubble.
If this punctures the lung, it could cause a pneumothorax - a potentially
dangerous condition which can be treated only by a qualified doctor.
The solution: 'Asthmatics should make sure they are free of symptoms
before they fly and use inhalers more liberally around the time of travel,'
advises Dr Walker.
Anyone suffering breathing problems should get in touch with a doctor
During descent, air within the ear cavity contracts, forming a slight
But if it cannot escape because the Eustachian tubes are blocked - for
example, because of a cold - the ear drum starts to become painful. In the worst cases, the drum will rupture, causing severe pain.
The solution: When the aircraft starts to descend, suck on a sweet to
'equalize' the pressure within your ear. Push your tongue against the roof of
your mouth and swallow. If that fails, hold your nose and blow.
Gas in the stomach or intestine expands as an aircraft climbs. In some
people, it can lead to abdominal pains.
Rushed meals, or increased swallowing because of anxiety, can mean
The solution: Before flying, avoid food and drink that can cause a buildup
of gas - such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, apples or beans. Try eating
peppermint capsules to help absorb gases.
To release trapped gas, lean forward over your left knee and then sit up
again - this lets it rise through your system.
Large changes in altitude can cause toothache, when tiny pockets of gas
become trapped in deep fillings, or collected in areas of decay.
The solution: Have a dental checkup before you fly and maintain good oral
hygiene in the run-up to your holiday.
There are increasing reports of tuberculosis outbreaks on airlines flying to
The confined cabin space and close proximity to passengers can help its
The solution: World Health Organization guidelines state all airlines
should ban from flying anyone known to have infectious TB and should install
'maximum efficiency air filters' on all aircraft.
If you are travelling to an area where TB is endemic, check your airline
follows the WHO recommendations.
Cabin air can have the effect of slightly dehydrating the body, made worse
by drinking alcohol.
The solution: Avoid alcohol before and during the flight.
Stick to soft drinks or plain water. Although rehydration can almost
always be achieved simply by drinking fluid, in severe cases intravenous
treatment may be needed.
Scuba-diving can be dangerous for anyone flying shortly after a dive.
Climbing to high altitudes can trigger 'the bends'. Symptoms include
headache, joint pain, fatigue and breathing problems.
The solution: Never fly within 48 hours of a sea dive below 50ft.
The effects, even at modest cabin altitudes, can be deadly… (By Pat Hagan).
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