Fly Safely, Prevent Blood Clots, Ear Pain, Motion Sickness, And Other Problems: Tips For Healthy Air Travel
Health Challenges While Flying
Each day people use planes as a means of transportation. Flying allows us to travel long distances in short times. The nature of air travel (small places, dry air, pressure changes...) creates unique health challenges for every passenger. While some health issues are well known, others are not. Some of the health problems are simply painful, others can be deadly. This article will cover problems such as sinus pressure, ear pain, motion sickness, headaches, and blood clots. Please remember to review this information with your doctor.
Sinus Pressure And Ear Pain
Air planes travel high up in the atmosphere, around 39,000 feet. Up at that height, air pressure is much different than it is for those of us at ground level. For this reason, air pressure in most airplanes is maintained at a pressure similar to altitudes of 5,000-9,000 feet. Many people do not live in those higher altitudes. For this reason, people often have problems with the cabin pressure in air planes.
Cabin pressure problems often manifest themselves as ear and/or sinus pain. This happens because both the ears and sinuses contain air. When changing altitude or air pressure, this air must have room to expand and contract. The body does this through a variety of small openings. If these opening are particularly small or if a person has a cold or sinus inflammation, this openings may not allow the air to change size easily. This can create a lot of pain!
If you are have blocked ears, a sinus infection, or other sinus congestion, you may not want to fly. You will be at a greater risk for pain and also may be at risk for eardrum rupture (ouch!).
You can try these ideas to decrease the pain experienced from pressure changes:
- Use special ear plugs that are designed for flying. These will help to equalize the pressure in your ears.
- Yawn, chew gum, or suck on candy to encourage your ears to pop.
- Consider a decongestant in oral or spray form.
- Use a neti pot.
- Pinch your nose and blow gently to change the pressure in your ears.
- Ask your doctor about a device called the Ear Popper.
Motion sickness is another well known problem while flying. Most people never get airsick but for those who do, it is miserable. If you are prone to motion sickness try to get a seat over the wing and near a window. This area moves less and the view of the horizon will help your brain deal with the movement. Opening your air vent may also help to ease your stomach. Some people find that reading and using video games make motion sickness worse.
If these tips do not help, you may find relief through herbal or medical remedies. Peppermint and ginger both can help naseau. Pack some strong peppermint candies to suck on throughout the flight. You can take ginger capsules before the flight. You can also try candied ginger, ginger chews, or ginger ale that have high concentrations of ginger. A wristband that places pressure on certain points on the wrist (Sea Band) has been reported by many to help with motion sickness. There are both child and adult sizes. Also, there is a more potent, electronic wrist band that is approved by the FDA called the ReliefBand. Lastly, there are over the counter drugs that contain meclizine that treat motion sickness.
Headache Pain From Flying
Some people find that they have problems with headaches while flying. People with migraines may find that flying is a migraine trigger. One study found that 1/5 participants had a headache while flying. Dr. Robbins and Susan Lang have a possible treatment option for those who find flying to be a pain in the head. A small, single dose of prednisone taken before the flight seems to treat these headaches. Information about this treatment can be found in Headache Help: A Complete Guide to Understanding Headaches and the Medications That Relieve Them.
Blood Clots, DVT, Pulmonary Embolism, Economy Class Syndrome
Air travel significantly raises the risk of having a blood clot. Blood clots can be fatal if they reach the lungs. The clot blocks the oxygen from reaching the blood. Symptoms of a clot include sudden swelling in one leg, a cramp or tenderness in a leg, bruising or swelling behind the knee, shortness of breath, rapid breathing, cramp in your side or painful breathing, chest pain, coughing up blood, or fainting. If you have any of these symptoms, go to an emergency room immediately.
While flying, a number of factors increase the risk of a clot. Being stationary for extended periods, having bent knees, and dehydration all contribute to the higher risk. Luckily, there are a number of things one can to to prevent these clots.
- When flying, get up, stand, and walk as often as possible. The maximum time seated should be restricted to 1 hour.
- While seated do leg exercises. Extend your legs if possible. Flex your ankles by lifting your toes off of the floor and spreading them. Next, press your toes into the floor. Rotate your ankles. If there isn't room to extend your legs, press your toes into the floor and lift your heels and then press your heels into the floor and lift your toes. You can also slide your feet back and forth on the floor to move your thigh muscles.
- Drink electrolytic beverages. A good way to do this is to buy packets of Gatorade that are designed for water bottles. You will take enough packets for 32 ounces of water. Once though security, purchase a 32 ounce bottle of water and mix in the Gatorade. Aim to drink 8 ounces per hour. As long as you stick with an electrolytic beverage, there will not be much of an increase in urination.
- Wear graduated compression hose. Some companies are now making knee highs that are designed for air travel. Make sure that whatever you wear, that they are not restricting circulation.
- If you are at risk, ask your doctor about prophylactic treatment with a medication like Lovenox. This medication does not need to be monitored and does not need the same build up as warfarin. You can do 1 injection and it will last 12 hours.
- Break your flight into smaller segments through layovers or by stopping to visit a city overnight or for a day and then continuing your travel. Flights of 4 hours or less are less risky.
- Book an aisle seat. If you have thrombophilia, Factor V Leiden, another clotting disorder, or a history of clots, speak to the airline about available disability accommodations that may include special seating or pre-boarding. Ask the airline which rows have the most leg room or look online for airplane seating charts that are airline and airplane specific.
For more information see Airhealth.