Ask The Doctor

Flying Right – Tips to Stay Healthy on Planes

Dear Dr. Garner,

My family is planning to go on summer vacation, and that means flying to our favorite vacation spot. Unfortunately, it seems that every time I fly, I get a cold.

Have any of your patients complained of similar problems? Is there something on the plane that makes people sick?

Plane Phobic in

Prospect Heights


Dear Plane Phobic,

Actually, your question is very common. It seems that up to 30 percent of people develop signs of a mild cold or runny nose following a plane trip. There are reasons why this might happen and things people can do to prevent it.

The plane cabin has a very low humidity. This can be as low as 20 percent – lower than most deserts in the world. This causes irritation of your nose, throat and eyes and can predispose you to developing a cold.

A key way to combat this is to drink water before and during the flight. It is also important to avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks, as these cause further dehydration.

To determine if you are properly hydrated, check the color of the urine. If it is clear, you are most likely well hydrated. If it is dark, you need to drink more water. You should also be sure that you drink enough water to urinate every hour that you are on the plane.

Use Vaseline in your nostrils to help keep them moist. Applying an eye cream below the eyes is also beneficial. To help humidify the air you breathe, cover your nose with a water-saturated cotton handkerchief and breathe. While this may make you feel self-conscious, you will feel better.

Due to changes in altitude, it is also possible for pressure to build up behind the eardrums. This can cause severe earaches. The following tip will help to relieve this pain: Take a wax coated drinking cup and put a paper napkin in the bottom of the cup. Ask the flight attendant to add boiling water. Drain off all the water. Lean your head down and sideways toward the cup to cover the blocked ear. Be careful that no hot water gets into the ear. As the steam reaches into the ear, the tubes will automatically clear and unblock the ear. Earplugs may also help to prevent and lessen earaches that might occur during the flight.

Flying these days also involves a lot of tension – whether from baggage handlers, security checks or delays. Stress helps to create headaches and dryness in your mouth and eyes. To combat this, try drinking a glass of hot water or decaffeinated tea. You can also try stress-reducing exercises. Taking deep breaths and imagining pleasant images can help as well.

Concerning stomachaches on the plane, anyone who has tasted airline food should not be surprised that these are a common occurrence. The meals that are served contain large amounts of salt, sugar and fat and can be difficult to digest. It is best to eat lightly and bring food from home.

Low-protein and low-fat food is best. You should avoid starchy foods, which may increase abdominal gas. In addition, as the airplane altitude pressure is not fully corrected, the bowels may distend even more with the gas present. This can cause pain and discomfort.

Garden of Germs

The plane is a garden of germs. Whether it is in the bathroom or pillows, bacteria and viruses thrive in this environment. It is important to wash your hands regularly. Remember that the water in the bathroom is not sterilized for drinking and can make you sick. It is wise not to drink this water.

People complain of swelling of the feet and ankles which occurs due to pressure changes on the plane. It is important to wear loose-fitting clothing and to take off shoes or wear slippers on longer flights. This will reduce discomfort.

When possible, walk around the cabin at least once an hour. You can also find exercises to follow in most in-flight airline magazines. These will help to exercise the calf muscles and reduce your risk of blood clots.

Keep these tips in mind and enjoy your vacation.[hr]

 Dr. Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on The NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Channel 97 Time Warner and Channel 30 Cablevision.

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