How To Stay Healthy While You Fly: Tips From A Pro
Staying healthy when you fly starts with being well prepared. There are tricks to protecting yourself from colds, flu, and other ills in the air, from taking an empty water bottle through security to preventing dry eyes, pre-booking food and the legit life-changing benefits of Hydralyte – as well as some awesome advice from the very people who do it every day. Ready to fly like a pro and land like an angel? Your in-flight health starts here.
Get a decent night’s sleep before you get on the plane
Don’t make the mistake of trying to prime yourself for a flight by skipping or reducing sleep the night before you board. Being overtired is no guarantee that you’ll sleep solidly on the plane. Between the screaming kids, toilet queues, food service and the whole sitting upright for fifteen hours bit, you are very likely to compound tiredness with exhausted delirium, reducing your body’s natural immune defenses and increasing the effects of jetlag.
Exercise before you fly
The best way to encourage deep sleep at high altitudes is to maintain a regular fitness regime on the ground, as exercise is thought to reduce stress and improve depth and length of sleep cycles. A good workout in the hours before you fly can also help to prime your body for rest by increasing your core body temperature slightly – when it dips a few hours later, you may be able to drift off. Being generally fit will also help you fight in-flight bugs and a troubled circadian rhythm.
Pre-load on electrolytes and probiotics
Dehydration and an upset tummy are two hallmarks of long-haul. At 40,000 feet, the relative air humidity is around 12% – drier than the Sahara Desert – and unfamiliar in-flight meals can contribute to gas and bloating. Prep for your flight with a week-long regime of probiotic food (yoghurt, miso, Yakult, kombucha) and consider pre-ordering a low sodium, low fat or vegetarian meal – your stomach will thank you. Most importantly, have a sachet or two of Hydralyte the night before you fly. Pack extra for the plane and when you land, to boost essential nutrients and electrolytes depleted through dehydration.
Allison Bentley, a pilot for the Qantas group, makes nutrition a priority in the air: ‘I usually fly early in the morning and I take my own breakfast, lunch and snacks to work. I pack nutritious things and try to avoid salty and sugary foods whilst flying.’
Stay moist, stay healthy
Drying out at high altitudes reduces your natural safeguard against airborne bacteria, including nasal mucus (gross, but true). Don’t leave your in-flight hydration in the hands of a busy flight attendant – bring an empty air bottle on the plane and try to sip your way through 1-2 cups of water per hour. Let your lips be your guide – they will be smooth and slightly moist if you’re properly hydrated. Bring saline eye drops to help your parched eyeballs, too. Your risk of catching cold and flu is increased if you’re constantly rubbing your eyes. Bonus news for people on over-packed flights: more bodies on the plane means more moisture in the air (although you don’t really want to know why).
‘I also drink a lot of water,’ Bentley says. ‘The environment is so dehydrating that I need to replace the fluid loss!’
Use antibacterial lotion and wipes
It’s not recycled air that spreads colds and flu in-flight, but the fact that you are crammed into a highly trafficked public area. Planes are cleaned frequently, but the shared surfaces still pose a risk, especially your tray table. Infectious bacteria can survive for hours outside of the body, including toilet doors and buttons, and it’s important to be mindful that you’re eating in this public space.
For an added line of defense, take antibacterial wipes and give your seat and tray a shine to kill residual bugs, and use antibacterial hand lotion before your in-flight meal.
Protect your ears
During take-off and landing, the air pressure climbs inside the cabin at 350 feet per minute. Your ears can pop or block while your Eustachian tubes open and close, attempting to equalise the external pressure with the air pressure inside your skull. Use a saline nasal spray like Fess before you fly to prevent painful congestion and chew gum during take-off and landing to help your ears pop. If you’re especially worried about the pressure change, take a decongestant tablet in the hours before you fly and land, or invest in ear plugs that help moderate changes in air pressure.
Keep things moving
The greatest risk to your health when flying is deep vein thrombosis or DVT – a life-threatening condition where blood clots form in your veins, creating risk for heart attack, stroke or embolism. Your risk increases during long-haul flights because you are sedentary and sitting upright for more than four hours, allowing blood to pool in your feet and legs. The simplest way to reduce risk is to keep your circulation flowing: get up regularly and walk the aisle, move and stretch your legs and arms.
Even the pilot has to keep things moving, as Alison Bentley explains: ‘On a normal day, I will fly four sectors. On each of those sectors I get up and stretch my legs and back, and I get up and walk around at the end of each sector also.’
Get down with grandma socks
If you’re particularly concerned about DVT, compression socks are your best defense. Compression socks may look ridiculous but they will stimulate blood flow away from your legs, with the added benefit of preventing swollen post-flight hamburger feet and cankles. You can also take an aspirin before you fly, which can thin the blood to aid circulation.
This is a painful one for the vacationing party animal. After all, in-flight drinks are free! But drinking booze in the air is the worst possible move for your in- and post-flight health. Alcohol is a diuretic, increasing dehydration and all of the associated risks (including more trips to that airplane bathroom).
Alcohol also decreases your body’s ability to metabolise oxygen. At cruising altitude, the air pressure is roughly 5 kilograms per square inch, which results in lower blood oxygen levels, leading to headaches and fatigue. Booze only heightens the problem, increasing the effect of jet lag.
Pack an arsenal of sleep aids
Again, sleep is key to in-flight health, but sleeping in the midst of three hundred strangers is the ultimate stress test. Bring whatever it takes to shut the world away, including an eye mask and noise cancelling headphones. The latter will cancel out engine noise as well as crying babies and snoring. Swallow your pride and pack a neck pillow to avoid nodding constantly out of sleep, and go with the urge to sleep whenever it hits – don’t miss your window because you’re invested in some terrible Nicholas Sparks rom-com or the latest Marvel blockbuster. For added comfort, bring a spare jumper on the plane and tuck it into your seat to smooth out the hard edges of arm rests.
Plan to beat jet lag
Jet lag is the more aggravating side effect of long-haul flights – a disruption to the circadian rhythm that tells you when to sleep and wake, and whether you’re up or down. In addition to waking up in the middle of the night, jet lag can make you feel muddled, irritable and achy, and wreak havoc with your belly. To minimise the effects, you need to reset your body clock as fast as possible. Prepare yourself mentally by setting your clock to the time at your destination as soon as you’re on the plane, and use a jet lag app like Jet Lag Rooster or Entrain to help you time your sleep. Melatonin, available in Australia with a doctor’s prescription, can also help your body in finding the right beats.
On short haul, our pilot recommends also exercise at the end of a flight, to reinvigorate your body. ‘Once I get home, I do some form of exercise before dinner. Sometimes I’m so tired I literally have to drag myself off the couch and force myself to move, but I always feel better afterward,’ Bentley says. ‘With the amount of time I spend sitting, it’s really important for me to keep my muscles moving throughout the day.’
BONUS TIP: Upgrade your flight
With beds that fold completely flat, food that resembles actual food and relative peace and quiet, First and Business Class are actually the best way to preserve your physical and mental health on a long-haul flight. Not an option right now? Call it a stretch goal.
The Qantas Assure App can help you set goals and be rewarded for being active. Earn Qantas Points for everyday activities like walking the dog, going for a jog or riding your bike*. You can find everything you need to know here. Ready to download the App? Head here for iOS, and here for Android.
Simone Ubaldi is a ghostwriter, music journalist, film critic and has co-authored four books, including memoirs of Bon Scott and Mark ‘Chopper’ Read. She stashes a lot of her writing at http://everythingyoulove.co/