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Silver Travel Advisor’s top tips for keeping healthy at 37,000 feet

27th July 2011 Print

Flying off to exotic lands is a glamorous and exciting way to travel. But, it can be equally hazardous, distressing and sometimes fatal, with dry eyes, wind and constipation among the least worrying of a myriad of symptoms!

Airplanes are pressurised to a level which is equivalent to being 7000 feet up a mountain. And that brings all the problems associated with reduced cabin air pressure, breathlessness, cramp, dehydration, swollen feet, dry skin and headache - to name just a few!

Popping ears:-

Most of us have experienced "popping" in our ears when flying. This is due to gas expanding and escaping through the eustachian tube in the middle ear. During descent of an aircraft the opposite happens - the air in the ear contracts and produces pain in the middle ear.

One solution may be to invest in some `Earplanes’, a new device that promises to relieve ear discomfort, clogging, and popping during flights. They cost around £4.99 and protect the ears from rapid cabin pressure changes and are simply inserted into the ear before take off and removed when the plane lands.
Alternatively, try yawning, swallowing, drinking fluids, or sucking a sweet to relieve the discomfort. Letting a young child cry on descent is probably the best thing to do, albeit it may drive other passengers to distraction! And travellers who suffer from sinus problems should always carry decongestants in their hand luggage. Taken the day before and during the flight they are an essential item to pack.


At a cruising height of 37,000 feet the gas in the body expands in volume by around 30%. Not only does this lead to a tighter waistband, but the increased gas can be unpleasant for passengers as well as for those around them. Worse still, those suffering from a fracture can find the air trapped between the skin and the plaster cast, leading to gangrene in the worst case scenario. And ostomy patients are advised to carry extra bags, in case of leakage.
Top tips for avoiding a messy and gaseous situation are to avoid fizzy drinks and gas producing foods, such as turnips, cabbage, beans and curries. Also to avoid chewing gum. Wear loose and comfortable clothing, eat and drink in moderation and try taking a drop of peppermint oil mixed with a teaspoon of honey, dissolved in hot water taken before the flight.

Breathing difficulties:-

A further potential health problem comes from breathing in reduced levels of oxygen. In a plane air contains only about 15% of oxygen compared with 21% in a normal environment. As a result, passengers with respiratory problems may experience breathing difficulties and would be well advised to discuss the situation with their G.P. before travelling.

Asthmatic patients should carry their inhalers in their hand luggage and have them accessible at all times. As inhalers occasionally don't work correctly it is always wise to carry spare inhalers. Chronic asthmatics can purchase nebulisers that work both off the mains and battery and they shoud be carried onto the plane as hand luggage.


Pressurisation of cabin air also leads to moisture removal and a low humidity level (around 20% in most cabins). A comfortable humidity is around 60%. Any increase in humidity during the flight is mainly from fellow passengers!

Such dry cabin air has an accelerated drying effect on contact lens. Eye specialists now recommend the removal of contact lens if the flight is over 4 hours. As well as dry eyes, dryness of mouth, throat, nose and skin occurs quickly. Headaches are common and so is constipation. Apply moisturisers and lip balm at least once during the flight. Try an essential oil spritzer spray to cool and refresh the skin or put a few drops of lavender oil into a spray bottle with mineral water. Avoid coffee , tea , and alcohol as all three contain diuretics which dehydrate the body even more. Instead, drink plenty of water and fruit juices.

Cramp and swelling:-

Long haul flights are notorious for causing cramp; extensive sitting upright results in swollen feet and ankles and non fitting shoes at the end of the flight. To prevent take frequent walks during the flight - hourly if possible. If you are able to reserve seats try to get an aisle seat or one near the emergency exits so that you can stretch out.
Five drops of lavender oil on a damp cloth makes an ideal compress to massage swollen feet and ankles. Gently massage in an upward direction to the bottom of each calf for a few minutes. A geranium oil compress is useful if you are prone to cramp. There is mounting evidence that flying also contributes to an increased risk of developing deep vein thrombosis (blood clots) in the legs. It is advisable to take a low dose ASPIRIN 75MG as a cheap and effective preventative. Consult your G. P. to check if it is safe to do so.

Travel sickness:-

Approximately one third of the population will suffer from travel sickness at some time. Surprisingly flying only affects approximately 2% of passengers presumably because the aircraft fly above the main turbulence. The best way to deal with travel sickness is to take preventative action. Pharmacists offer a multitude of remedies, for example, Stugeron which is popular as it produces lower than usual sedation. Chewing raw ginger can help too or put 3 drops of ginger oil onto a handkerchief and inhale. Distracting a person’s attention will often prevent travel sickness, or focussing on a distant point. Watching the in-flight movie may provide all the distraction that is needed. Other measures include sitting over-wing, the most stable part of the plane, and try and get plenty of fresh air through the air vent above your seat.

Diabetic advice:-

Diabetic control may become a problem during a long haul flight, especially if the passenger is travel sick. Insulin should be kept in the hand luggage and preferably in two separate places, just in case some is lost. Jet lag may affect the control of both diabetics and epileptics leading to dose adjustment. Again consult your G.P. before flying.

Jet lag:-

Jet lag can be a real handicap. Measures to combat it include (if travelling east) - on the morning of arrival try to stay indoors out of natural daylight and rest until the afternoon as this will help to advance the body clock. If travelling west - try to follow the same wake, eat and sleep timetables as the locals and the body clock will adjust accordingly. A long soak in a bath of oil of grapefruit and lavender, deeply inhaling the aroma does help the body adjust to the difference in time zones.

In spite of everything…

Flying is a very safe mode of travel. Millions of people fly each year and long haul is on the increase. Adopting some or all of the measures outlined should help make you flight more enjoyable.

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