9 Shocking & Gross Things That Can Happen To Your Body While Flying In An Airplane
If you've ever stepped foot on a plane, then you already know flying can affect your body in some pretty significant ways. Like most public modes of transportation, planes can be small, cramped, and thus totally riddled with germs. But there's the dry air, high altitude, and long periods spent sitting down to contend with, too.
For all these reasons, many people "dread air travel, especially when going on vacation," healthy lifestyle expert Jaya Jaya Myra tells Bustle. "Flights are often full and the space is cramped. You're exposed to peoples' germs in close quarters, and you can't open a window or get away from them." So it's not uncommon to arrive at your destination with a cold, or some other type of plane-induced illness or side effect.
But none of that means flying has to be horrible — especially if you take a few precautions to keep yourself well. To start, you'll want to drink a lot of water, since you'll see below that dehydration plays a pretty big role in what makes flights so uncomfortable. And you'll definitely want to pack extra cleanliness items, like hand-sanitizer, so that you can remain as germ-free. Here, a few more surprising things that can happen during flights — as well as tips for staying as healthy as possible whenever you fly.
1. Food Poisoning
Some people love airplane food. Others hate it. But whatever your feelings, bear in mind that it is possible to "get food poisoning on a plane or from airplane food," Candess Zona-Mendola, an editor of MakeFoodSafe, tells Bustle. "The kitchens on airplanes are mainly used to reheat the food, which is prepared by large catering facilities."
While you of course aren't necessarily going to get sick by eating plane food, food poisoning is a risk worth keeping in mind. "Food poisoning is preventable in most instances," Zona-Mendola says. "It is a good idea to wash your hands before eating on an airplane (or at least use antibacterial hand sanitizer). Also remember, hot foods should be hot, and cold foods cold. If temperatures of foods are 'off,' don’t eat those foods."
If you've ever experienced constipation on a long flight, you're definitely not alone. "The pressurized cabins create a very dry environment (10 to 20 percent humidity compared to a comfortable level of 30 to 60 percent) in the airplane," Alicia Galvin, MEd, RD, LD, CLT, IFNCP, owner of Alicia Galvin Smith LLC, tells Bustle. "Sitting in this low humidity environment causes water from your nose, eyes, mouth, and throat to be attracted to the drier air molecules around you, similar [to] evaporation. So every time you exhale, you expel more moisture, leading to dehydration which can trigger constipation."
You can help prevent it, however, by increasing your water intake. "As a dietitian, I am always encouraging people to stay hydrated when flying," Galvin says, adding that it's necessary to drink an extra eight ounces of water for every hour that you are in the air. By staying hydrated, you should be able to prevent constipation.
Constipation aside, it's also common to experience general dehydration while flying. "The humidity in aircraft cabins is very low, and your body typically loses eight ounces of water for every hour you're in the air," Holly Habeck, a professional travel writer, tells Bustle.
As with constipation, dehydration can be avoided by making sure you drink those extra eight ounces every hour. "This makes up for how much your body is losing naturally, and it helps ensure you stay healthy throughout those long flights," Habeck says.
To really do your body a favor, "opt for plain water instead of alcohol, soda, or coffee while onboard," Dr. Pamela Reilly, a naturopathic physician, tells Bustle. "Water will keep you more hydrated than any other beverage. Coffee or tea, alcohol, and most sodas are actually dehydrating and should be avoided."
4. "Airplane Ear"
You know that weird feeling you get in your ears when the plane takes off or lands? This ear popping sensation is due to the change of pressure, and is sometimes referred to as airplane ear.
"Airplane ear is one of the more uncomfortable experiences while you're in an airplane," Rishi Kapoor, founder and CEO of Nanak Flights, tells Bustle. "Usually, the air pressure in your inner ear is similar to the outside of it, but when the plane takes off, the exterior air pressure changes significantly fast and your inner ear's air pressure hasn't had enough time to acclimate, causing a small vacuum effect."
If this is super painful for you, you can "chew gum or swallow often," Kapoor says. "The movement of your mouth and throat helps introduce air into your inner ear and equalizing the pressure. Using steam or a hot towel against the ear can also help reduce the pain you're feeling."
5. Germ Exposure
We all know how germy airplanes are, and how common it is to get sick when flying as a result. After all, you're squeezed into a small space with a lot of other people who are all worn down and tired from traveling — just like you are.
But colds can be prevented by being more diligent about cleanliness. And sometimes all it takes is a little more hand washing. "Hand washing is like a 'do-it-yourself' vaccine — it involves five simple and effective steps (Wet, Lather, Scrub, Rinse, Dry)," Dr. Gustavo Ferrer, MD, a pulmonologist and author of Cough Cures, tells Bustle. "Regular hand washing ... is one of the best ways to remove germs, avoid getting sick, and prevent the spread of germs to others."
6. Edema (Leg Swelling)
One of the more uncomfortable things that can happen during longer flights is edema, or leg and foot swelling. If you've ever looked down to see puffy ankles, this is likely the cause.
According to the Mayo Clinic, "The most likely culprit is inactivity during a flight. Sitting with your feet on the floor for a long period causes blood to pool in your leg veins. The position of your legs when you are seated also increases pressure in your leg veins. This contributes to foot swelling by causing fluid to leave the blood and move into the surrounding soft tissues."
So, it makes sense that the best way to prevent it, is by moving around. "Stretch as much as you can while seated," Dr. Reilly says "Raising each knee individually and lowering it, repeating for a set a 10 at least once an hour, can help keep blood flowing." You can also walk the aisle, or stroll on down to the bathroom more frequently.
7. Exposure To Radiation
When you're 30,000 feet up in the sky, you're quite literally closer to all the cosmic rays floating around in space, why is why "flying increases your exposure to galactic ionizing radiation," Brian Granvall, a physician assistant practicing radiology, tells Bustle. "The bad news is you really can't prevent it, but the good news is that the exposure risk is lower than a chest X-ray if you fly from New York to Los Angeles."
In the grand scheme of things, it's not worth worrying about too much. It should, however, "be in the back of the minds of frequent long-distance travelers, pregnant passengers, [and] aircrew and aircrew members," Granvall says. If you're worried about it, ask your doctor for their advice before flying.
8. Super Dry Skin
Flying can truly wreak havoc on your skin, again thanks to that dehydrating cabin air. So if you tend to land at your destination with flaky skin, it can help to plan ahead.
"Carry a four ounce spritzer bottle of 80 percent water, 19 percent glycerin, and one percent essential oils with you," Dr. Reilly suggests. "Glycerin is a humectant that pulls water from the air to your skin. Spritzing with this blend is refreshing and helps keep skin hydrated."
9. Worsening Asthma
Dehydration strikes again when it comes to asthma symptoms on flights. "Dehydration can occur easily, causing dry skin and eyes in addition to breathing problems for those prone to asthma/COPD," Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist at Allergy Asthma Associates of Murray Hill, tells Bustle. "Those with asthma/COPD and other breathing problems are prone to flare ups or trouble breathing due to dehydration, low humidity, and high altitudes, which can be dangerous in flight."
That's why she recommends asthma sufferers pack their inhalers and other important items in their carry-on. "Often people will pack important medications in checked luggage and not be able to access them in flight or airlines may lose their checked luggage," Dr. Parikh says. In addition to making sure you have your medicine handy, Dr. Parikh also suggests drinking a lot of water.
While there's a seemingly endless list of weird, gross, and shocking things can happen on an airplane, there are also plenty of ways to make yourself more comfortable, and get to your destination with ease. All it takes is a little planning.