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Airplane health concerns... Jet Lag or Jet Set?

Dear Ellen, I am worried about the extensive airline travel I have coming up this spring and summer. Can you give me an overview of some common health concerns and tips or simple changes to help me stay healthy and energized?

The prospect of air travel often raises health concerns. However, on a global scale, passenger air travel is expected to maintain at a positive annual growth rate of 4% between 2016 and 2023. So, here are some common health concerns and tips about what we can do to protect our health and ensure our comfort while flying like the jet-set! 

Comfort and Sleep

  • Choose your seat wisely. Airlines usually allow you to choose seating online when you purchase your ticket. The Tripadvisor Seat Guru is a great resource for seeing the layout of the plane and advice on the pros and cons of different seating areas.
  • Take only one small bag on board so you don't have to stuff one under your feet restricting legroom.
  • Bring a neck pillow, an eye mask and warm socks.
  • Wear loose, comfortable clothing and layers that you can remove easily if you get warm or put on again if you get cold.
  • Wear comfortable soft shoes that you can slip on and off easily since your feet may swell during the flight.
  • Refer to recommendations in Airport and Airline Food…Jet Lag or Jet Set?

Ear pain                                                           

During take-off and landing, cabin air pressure changes rapidly which can disturb the balance of pressure between the outer and middle ear causing pain. Pressure can be alleviated by swallowing, chewing gum, yawning, or opening the mouth wide. Another option is filtered earplugs which slowly equalize the pressure against the eardrum during ascents and descents.


Studies show that some of the most dangerous germs can live for up to a week on airplane seats, tray tables, armrests, and other surfaces. To protect yourself from germs and potential illness during and after flying, researchers recommend staying well hydrated (see Airport and Airline Food…Jet Lag or Jet Set?), wiping surfaces with antibacterial wipes, using hand sanitizer and washing hands as often as possible.

Jet Lag

Jet lag is the result of travelling across several times zones which can cause symptoms like fatigue and sleep disruption. Our biological clock is attuned to the day-night cycle of the start of our journey, so when we travel to a different time zone quickly our body is still operating as if we were in the zone we left. All of the recommendations in the previous article Airport and Airline Food…Jet Lag or Jet Set? can help jet-lag and below are some more specific tips to re-set a confused body clock:

  • Try to be well rested at the onset of your trip since sleep can help both resistance and resilience. For better sleep refer to these top 10 tips.
  • Set your watch to the time zone of your destination before you depart.
  • When you arrive at your destination, get into the local routine as soon as possible.
  • Stay outside during daylight as much as you can because the natural cycle of light and dark is one of the most important factors in setting the body’s internal clock.
  • If you are suffering of jet lag you might consider asking your doctor about the proper timing and dosage if you choose to try melatonin to reset your body clock. Melatonin has been widely studied, and is now a commonly accepted part of effective jet lag treatment. Ask
  • Always speak to your doctor before choosing sleeping tablets for jet lag or on flights as they may encourage you to be less mobile (see inactivity below)

Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT) and Inactivity

A DVT is a blood clot in a deep vein, commonly in the legs. It can be life-threatening if a piece of the clot breaks off and travels to the lungs where it can cause a pulmonary embolism (or other). Recent World Health Organisation studies suggest that the risk of venous thromboembolism could double after 4 hours of flying due to prolonged immobility. This risk increases with longer flights as well as multiple flights within a short period.

All of the recommendations in Airport and Airline Food…Jet Lag or Jet Set? can help lower the risk of DVT, but mobility is key. Many airlines now provide suggested exercises and stretches on-line and on-board. Suggestions usually include rotating ankles, standing calf raises, back, neck and arm stretches and walking around whenever possible.

Reduced oxygen

At cruising altitude, airline cabins have lower-than-normal air pressure and oxygen levels. Blood oxygen saturation during commercial flights can be 5%–10% lower than normal. If you are in good health, your body can usually compensate, but if you have a lung condition, you may need supplemental oxygen. Check with your physician for advice several weeks before your flight and call your airline to find out policies and cost.

Fear of Flying

Fear of flying is a common phobia which sometimes arises from a flying experience, or an emotional reaction. It can also be triggered by claustrophobia, concern about heights, loss of control, or fear of the unknown. Many airlines run courses that combine behavioural techniques and education. Research suggests that such courses are effective and that the benefit of reduced flying anxiety may be sustained.


Generally, commercial air travel before week 36 of pregnancy is considered safe, however recommendations based on research are quite divers. Therefore, if you are pregnant, check with your health care provider before flying.

We will not be considering terrorism as a health risk in this article, however, if you are terrorized by your bathroom scale….read our next article Worried about the scale?....No weigh! 

Once you return home from your spring travels, it may be time for spring cleaning! For tips on how to ensure a healthy, relaxing home, check out next week’s article Spring Cleaning…Lose your clutter to win your health!