Douglas Adams once said that flying was learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss, but he clearly hadn’t stood for an hour in a queue at Heathrow, waiting to get patted down for weapons of mass destruction by a stony-faced security guard.
Whisper it, but air travel isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Whether you are a frequent flyer or just looking forward to two weeks away, the health risks of flying are more subtle than we think. Mile for mile, flying is a very safe way to travel — motorcycling is more than 3,000 times more deadly, travelling in a car 100 times more so. Still, many patients who have been on long-haul flights are convinced that they walk off the plane sicker than when they boarded. And before we all jump on the nearest fishing boat, there are many things we can do to reduce the effects.
During long-haul flights, get up and walk about for a few minutes every hour. This reduces the chances of a blood clot developing in the calves. This is something that I frequently see among travellers and it is said to affect at least 2,000 people a year in the UK. If you have a history of this, or have varicose veins, take an aspirin on the day of the flight because this will thin the blood slightly and reduce the risk of blood clots, but check first with your doctor.
Drink plenty of fluid, but don’t raid the duty-free trolley. The humidity in a plane is less than 20 per cent (our homes are 30 per cent on average) and the effects of alcohol work far quicker in the air than on the ground. Drink water regularly, aiming for a minimum of two litres. This can help reduce the problems of headaches, tiredness and jet lag. It is an urban myth about flying that poor quality, recirculated air is responsible for travellers developing infections. In fact, modern filters are very effective at removing bacteria from an aircraft cabin. The main risk is in sitting next to someone with a cold or bacterial infection, which will obviously increase your risk of catching something.
Watch what you eat. Not surprisingly, sitting in a pressurised metal box at 30,000 feet has an impact on any gas inside you. This will expand by 20 per cent during a flight and so it is sensible to avoid gassy drinks or sparkling water. If certain foods cause bloating, avoid them in in-flight meals and keep the meals you eat before flying light and simple — pasta and fruit are ideal. It is better to arrive at your destination slightly hungry and well hydrated than bloated, thirsty and embarrassed.
Can we fly silently? That is the title of an article in the magazine Popular Science, but seeing that the issue is from October 1947 and that decibel levels remain nearly as high today, the answer is no. The article detailed efforts to get noise levels below 100 decibels in the back of the cabin. For reference, a nightclub is in the 100db range, heavy traffic is 80 decibels and normal conversation is 60 decibels. In an aircraft cabin, it ranges from about 75 decibels in the front to 85 decibels or higher in the back (where the engine is). Some back rows can clock in at 100 decibels and passengers in such a loud environment tend to raise the volume of music they’re listening to on earphones by five decibels, according to a study published in 2009 in the journal Perspectives on Audiology, although noise-reducing headphones can cut noise by up to 40 decibels. Ear pain associated with air pressure changes rarely leads to permanent hearing loss.
An estimated nine million people in Britain suffer anxiety about flying. Fear may develop after a rough flight or a report of a hijacking or crash. Panic attacks are common. If you are afraid, try to distract yourself by talking, watching in-flight films, eating or reading. Make sure the cabin crew know about your fears because reassurances about strange sounds and procedures can help. You can discuss your fears with your doctor and can consider taking a tranquilliser before flying.
When the air pressure changes, your middle ear adjusts to ease the stress on the eardrum, but when the pressure changes rapidly, the middle ear struggles to keep up. This is why you might feel pressure or pain when ascending or descending, worse when you have a cold. In severe cases, you might need to see a doctor, but usually the discomfort can be solved easily. Yawning, sucking sweets, chewing gum or swallowing can help your ears ‘pop’, releasing the pressure. If you have a cold, bring along a nasal decongestant. Avoid sleeping during take-off and landing so you can focus on clearing the pressure. If swallowing or yawning doesn’t work, try the Valsalva manoeuvre, pinching your nostrils, closing your mouth and very gently blowing air into your nasal passages as if you were blowing your nose.
Jet lag is an almost inevitable effect of flying and we are usually affected if we travel more than four time zones, with symptoms including tiredness and sleep difficulties, poor concentration, nausea and malaise. Sleeping during a long-haul flight can reduce this but try not to fly when already tired, avoid heavy commitments on the day after landing and remember that sleeping tablets do not speed up your adjustment to the new time zone. Some travellers take melatonin to reduce jet lag, but its effects are scientifically unproven.
Air travel has never been cheaper, nor more frustrating, but with some simple measures and a bit of planning it is possible to arrive at your destination feeling better, not worse.