Five ways air travel affects the body, according to a physician

Matthew Goldman, MD.

Environmental factors in an airplane cabin and the process of traveling itself can affect the body’s normal functioning, but there are several precautions that can be taken to minimize the impact, says an expert from global health system Cleveland Clinic.

“The pressure, temperature and oxygen levels in the cabin fluctuate, and the humidity level is lower than it is at sea level,” says Cleveland Clinic family medicine physician Matthew Goldman, MD. “All of these can mess with some of your body’s normal functions. Then, there’s the actual process of traveling, which could involve switching time zones and coming in contact with dozens or even hundreds of other people.”

Dr. Goldman points out that even the stress associated with travelling can take its toll, and recommends individuals plan ahead to minimize this. “People could, for example, head to the airport early to avoid the stress of unexpected traffic and queues. Those who need to take medications could pack these in carry-on luggage for easy access, while individuals with diabetes or other health conditions can book special dietary meals ahead of time.”

Dr. Goldman adds that if individuals are not feeling well, it might be worth putting off air travel. “If your eustachian tubes are clogged by inflammation from a cold or allergies, your ears might not be able to ‘pop’ during takeoff and landing, which could cause pain and even damage the ear,” he says.

According to Dr. Goldman, there are five common ways that air travel can affect the body, and there are steps individuals can take to minimize the impact of each.

  1. Dehydration risk
    Airplane cabins have very low humidity levels because about 50% of the air circulating in the cabin is pulled from the outside, and at high altitudes, the air is almost completely devoid of moisture, Dr Goldman says. This might cause a person’s throat, nose, eyes and skin to feel dry so he suggests carrying an empty water bottle that can be refilled after clearing security and packing small bottles of lotion, eye drops or nasal sprays in hand luggage. People could also try wearing glasses instead of contacts to help prevent the discomfort of dry eyes.
  2. Energy depletion
    “Air pressure is lower at higher altitudes, which means your body takes in less oxygen,” says Dr. Goldman. “Airlines ‘pressurize’ the air in the cabin, but not to sea-level pressures, so there’s still less oxygen getting to your body, which can make you feel drained or even short of breath. Dehydration and sitting for long periods of time can make it worse, as can traveling to a different time zone.”

Hydration is key to combatting this problem, says Dr. Goldman. He also recommends getting up and walking around on longer-haul flights, and performing stretches while seated, for example, lifting the feet off the ground and flexing and pointing the toes, to keep blood flowing. For those traveling to a different time zone for just a day or two, Dr. Goldman recommends trying to keep sleep schedules on home time zones.

  1. Stress on ears and motion sickness
    According to Dr. Goldman, “The pressure in the cabin changes, the air pressure inside your inner ears tries to adjust with it — this equalization is what helps you maintain your balance. Stress is placed around the middle ear tissue and eustachian tubes when the outside pressure changes quickly during takeoff and landing, which is why your ears may adjust by popping.”

This imbalance can also contribute to motion sickness, says Dr. Goldman. He explains that motion sickness occurs when the brain receives conflicting messages about motion and the body’s position in space delivered from the inner ear, eyes, and skin receptors and the muscle and joint sensors.

Dr. Goldman suggests swallowing or yawning to open the eustachian tubes, which control the pressure in the middle ear, during takeoff and landing. To minimize motion sickness, he suggests choosing a window seat over the wing, where the degree of motion is lowest and the passenger may be able to view the horizon.

  1. Bloating
    Airplane pressure changes also cause gas inside the stomach and intestines to expand, which is why people may feel bloated, says Dr Goldman. He advises avoiding any foods that are known to make gas worse before and during a flight.
  2. Exposure to germs
    “You might think that recirculating air in the cabin would make you prone to getting sick, but commercial airlines actually have advanced filtering systems that remove most bacteria, fungi and viruses from the air,” says Dr. Goldman. “It is the close proximity with so many other people that is more likely to make you sick.”

Dr. Goldman further suggests having vaccinations up to date before flying, carrying a small bottle of sanitizer, and washing hands thoroughly throughout the journey.