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The Health Hazards of Flying, and What
You Can Do to Prevent Them

There are roughly 5,000 planes in the sky over the United States at any given moment, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. On board many of these planes are passengers who are on their way to a business meeting, vacation or to visit family or friends.

air travel

Up to 90 percent of travelers who cross a time zone during their flight experience the symptoms of jet lag.

But after your ticket has been purchased, your bags are packed, and you're sitting on-board, waiting for takeoff, there is something you should know. While most people fly safely without any problem, flying does carry with it very real health effects -- and you may be at risk.

Health Risks of Long, and Short, Flights

Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) (Long Flights)

DVT, also known as 'economy class syndrome,' is a blood clot that develops as a result of being immobile for a long period of time.

Studies by the World Health Organization found that, indeed, if you sit immobile for four hours or more (on a plane, bus, car, etc.) your risk of getting a blood clot called a venous thromboembolism (VTE) doubles. Though DVT is sometimes called economy class syndrome because it's more common in the cramped quarters of economy class, experts want the nickname removed because first-class travelers are also at risk.

The risk of developing VTE after four hours of being seated is still relatively small at about one in 6,000.

VTE occurs because blood stagnates in your veins when you're seated. VTE usually leads to DVT, which is when the blood clot occurs in a deep vein, typically in the lower part of your leg.

DVT can cause pain and swelling, but becomes life threatening if part of the clot breaks off and travels to your lungs. This is called a pulmonary embolism, and it can block your blood flow and be fatal.

Breaking up your flight into several, shorter ones, does not reduce the risk because your risk of VTE remains increased for about four weeks after you fly. So the more you fly in a short period of time, the more your risk accumulates. Other factors that increase your risk of VTE include:

  • Obesity

  • Being very tall (over 6'3") or very short (under 5'3")

  • Using oral contraceptives (birth control pills)

  • Certain blood disorders that increase your clotting tendency

What can you do to reduce your risk? Wear loose-fitting clothing, move your feet and calf muscles often, and get up and walk around as much as possible during the flight. You can also find elastic compression stockings at most pharmacies that you can wear during the flight. They're designed specifically to reduce the risk of DVT.

air travel

You can reduce the "side effects" of air travel by drinking plenty of water during your flight, avoiding alcohol, and walking around the plane as much as possible.

Altitude Discomfort

During long flights, aircraft cabins are typically pressurized to 8,000 feet above sea level, which although typically not high enough to cause actual "mountain sickness," can certainly cause a lot of discomfort (if you've ever visited Denver, CO, which is 5,280 feet above sea level, you'll know what this feels like). (Shorter flights are typically pressurized at 5,000 to 6,000 feet.)

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that upon participating in a 20-hour simulated flight pressurized at various ranges above sea level, oxygen saturation was lowered by about 4 percent.

This did not cause adverse health effects, but it did cause discomfort in a lot of the passengers after three to nine hours in flight in a cabin pressurized to 8,000 feet. Symptoms included malaise, muscular discomfort, fatigue, and ear, nose and throat discomfort.

What can you do? Drinking a lot of fluids (non-alcoholic varieties) and moving around as much as possible may help to relieve some discomfort.

Jet Lag

Up to 90 percent of people who cover long distances in flight may feel the effects of jet lag. Jet lag occurs when you cross multiple time zones and your body clock, or circadian rhythm, becomes out of sync with the actual time. It can result in fatigue, insomnia, disorientation, headaches, lost appetite, stomachaches, and feeling "out of it."

It can take a full day for each time zone you've crossed for you to fully recover.

What can you do? Avoid alcohol the day you're going to fly, drink plenty of water during your flight, and get a good night's sleep before your flight. When you reach your destination, try to adjust to its time zone as quickly as possible by sleeping and eating at the appropriate times.

Infectious Diseases

About 50 percent of the air in aircraft cabins is re-circulated, which, along with the close proximity to other passengers, brings up the possibility of transmitting infectious diseases.

In reality, experts believe the risk of airborne infections is actually very low, perhaps lower than the risk in an office building or public bus or train.

It is, however, possible to contract diseases such as meningitis, measles and tuberculosis.

What can you do? Wash your hands often (especially before eating), don't touch your mouth or eyes unless your hands are clean, and, if you're seated near someone who appears to be sick, ask to move to another seat.

Recommended Reading

Fear of Flying: How to Get Over Your Phobia of Flying in an Airplane

Eight Steps to Take if You Ever Experience the Frustration of Lost Luggage


National Air Traffic Controllers Association

World Health Organization: WRIGHT Project

The New England Journal of Medicine Volume 357:18-27, July 5, 2007, Number 1 October 9, 2006

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