How flying affects your body: The physiological effects of long haul commercial flights

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- We all have them: the friends or coworkers who travel all over the globe for business or pleasure, constantly reminding us via photos on Instagram. However, a closer look may reveal a less glamorous side of flying long distances.

The flight environment creates some interesting challenges for human beings, even the relatively mild commercial flight setting can put a strain on our physiology in ways that include the familiar and the unexpected. While everyone should take steps to safeguard their health, passengers who are older, or already in poor health, may have greater cause for concern.

Long distance air travel can have negative emotional, physiological, and physical effects. Before embarking on your next adventure, you might want to think twice about the potential dangers and keep their remedies in mind to stay in your best shape.

Potential dangers

With the advent of new aircraft such as the Boeing 787, we are able to travel greater distances in a single trip than ever before. Some major airlines, for instance, plan to charter a non-stop flight from Perth to London in 2018, a grueling 17 hour journey. Let’s look at a few potential dangers of flying.

- Deep Vein Thrombosis is caused when blood clots form in large veins. DVT is a serious health problem. The risk of DVT goes up during long periods of limited movement and inactivity, like airplane flights. People with other DVT risk factors, like clotting disorders or recent surgeries, should be aware of the danger and take preventative measures. For example, try getting up and walking around or stretching and exercising leg muscles while seated.

- Dehydration is another issue. Be aware of dry, thin air aboard aircraft because it will increase the rate at which your body loses moisture. Drink plenty of water to compensate, and try to avoid diuretics like caffeine and alcohol.

- Gas Expansion can also cause problems. Your body has more areas of trapped gas than just the one in your gut. In addition to feeling some gastrointestinal pressure, many airline passengers also feel the pressure change in their middle ears and sinuses. While this usually manifests only as mildly uncomfortable popping, clicking or squeaking sensations, inflammation from an upper respiratory infection can dramatically worsen this experience, causing pain or damage to sensitive tissues in the ears and sinuses. To try to relieve pressure build-up on descent from altitude, passengers can perform what is known as a Valsalva maneuver by pinching your nose shut, then attempt to exhale against the closed airway (blow without letting air leave your body). This will add internal pressure and help equalize your middle ears, but only on descent, not as the plane climbs in altitude.

- Radiation: for those on high-altitude flights, there is less atmosphere protecting them from cosmic radiation. Pilots and aircrew, for example, have roughly double the incidence of melanoma compared to the general population. A typical over the top, or high-latitude flight route, from Chicago to Shanghai gives passengers about eight percent of their annual radiation dosage. While the increased amount of radiation exposure from flight is not particularly dangerous to the general population, it is a hazard of which frequent flyers should be aware. Unfortunately, the only preventative measure is to avoid polar flights. For perspective, a flight from New York to Los Angeles averages less than half of the radiation exposure from a chest X-ray.

Air travel tips

With the right attitude, even long flights can be fun. Although traveling for multiple hours can prove to be tiring, both mentally and physically, there are plenty of tips and tricks one can use to combat the dangers of long flights.

Avoid using the moving walkways and escalators. Walk as much as you can and use the stairs. If you want to really get your blood pumping, get as much exercise as possible. Common exercises that you could do at the hotel gym include running, push-ups, sit ups, and squats. Isometric exercises you can do while flying include clenching fists, feet and if you’re bold squats in the aircraft lavatory are always an option.

If you must fly often, explore the direct-flight option to cut down on travel time. Not only is flying one of the safest methods of travel, it can also be one of the most rewarding. Remember to always put your health first!