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What Happens to Your Body When You Fly

What Happens to Your Body When You Fly
Mariel Loveland

Humans weren’t exactly made to launch themselves a mile into the sky and hop across the world in a few hours. Nonetheless, there are about 1.27 million people in the air at any given time on any day. As wonderful—and as popular—as air travel has gotten since the Wright brothers made their first successful flight in 1903, it sure does some pretty strange things to our bodies.

If you’re feeling a little out of whack mid-flight, you’re not alone. Our bodies actually go through some physical changes after takeoff, some of which can make us feel a little bit weird. Here’s what happens to your body when you fly and how to stave off the potential discomfort.

Your Ears Might Pop

To some, airplane ear is a minor annoyance. To others, it’s actually really painful. This phenomenon is often exacerbated when you’ve already got a problem with fluid in your ears (think: a sinus infection, the common cold, or a bad case of swimmer’s ear from wiping out in a wave during your beach vacation).

During takeoffs and landings, your ears try to adjust to the rapidly changing cabin pressure in order to help your body maintain its sense of balance. This puts a lot of stress on your middle ear and eustachian tubes, which is why you might feel them pop. To restore the equilibrium, try to yawn or take big gulps of your drink. In some cases, you’ll just have to sit with muffled hearing for a while (but definitely see a doctor if it lasts for a few days).

You’ll Probably Get Dehydrated

The air you’re breathing in an airplane actually does come from outside, and when you’re cruising a mile high, there’s not really a lot of moisture in the air. This low humidity is the reason you’re more likely to get thirsty and have dry skin and dry eyes while you’re on a flight.

To prevent dehydration, drink plenty of water before your flight. Bring your own water bottle and avoid alcohol (even if it’s included with your dinner). Yes, sipping a cocktail makes sitting in a human sardine can more bearable, but you’ll thank yourself later. You might also want to carry a travel size lotion or some eye drops.

Your Taste Buds Are out of Whack

Airplane food has a bad rap. There’s only so much you can do with a meal that has to be frozen on the ground, reheated in less than ideal conditions, and served to hundreds of passengers in the span of a half an hour. Whatever they throw at us in economy class is not gourmet in any sense, but if you’re reeling from the stereotypical blandness found in almost every in-flight meal, don’t blame the flight attendant. Blame your tongue.

The dry air in a flight cabin has a knack for dulling our sense of smell, which is integral to the way we taste. Surprisingly, the constant whirring of an airplane engine also throws our senses out of whack. A study commissioned by Lufthansa found that the noise levels in an airplane suppressed the taste of sweet foods but enhanced the taste of umami (which could explain why airplane pretzels just taste so darn good).

According to TIME, airlines add up to 30% more sugar or salt to in-flight meals to make up for our dulled sense of taste. Hey, they’re doing what they can.

Your Feet and Ankles Swell

The monsters who take go barefoot mid-flight might get a little bit of karma in the form of not actually being able to put their shoes back on once they land. When you’re sitting upright for such a long time, blood has a tendency to pool around your feet and cause swelling from your lower legs to the tips of your toes. At best, it’s uncomfortable. At worst, you can develop a type of blood clot called deep vein thrombosis (DVT) which, according to the CDC, can cause long-term health complications and even death.

Staving off swelling can be as simple as stretching your ankles with a few small rotations or getting up every once in a while for a stroll to the loo. If you’re at risk for DVT, you have to be a little more careful. Talk to your doctor about using compression stockings or anticoagulant drugs to lower your risk.

Low Oxygen Can Make You Sleepy, Weepy and Headache-y

It’s no secret that high altitudes have thin air and low levels of oxygen. When you’re in flight, this won’t distinctly give you altitude sickness because cabin pressure is carefully controlled, but you’ll still probably feel some of the effects.

On airplanes, barometric pressure is generally set at a level equivalent to an altitude of 5,000 to 8,000 feet, which is on par with cities like Colorado Springs or Mexico City. This causes mild hypoxia (or oxygen deficiency) in most people. In fact, a U.K. study found that oxygen levels in healthy individuals dropped by about 4% when they were in the air.

For most of us, a tiny oxygen dip isn’t a big deal and has relatively minor symptoms like drowsiness and headaches. It might even make you a little emotional (i.e. the infamous Mile Cry Club), but if you suffer from heart or lung disease, it can exacerbate your symptoms.

Bring on the Bloat

Cabin pressure and jet lag can wreak havoc on your digestive tract. According to an article published in the New Zealand Medical Journal (as reported by NBC News), flying has a tendency to give people some major gas, and unfortunately, breaking wind in a metal tube with recycled air is generally frowned upon.

When altitude increases, pressure decreases, and this can make the gas inside your body expand up to 25% causing some serious bloating (not to mention all the extra sodium in your in-flight meal certainly doesn’t help). If that doesn’t get you, the jet lag will. When your internal clock is thrown off you can get an upset stomach, constipation and diarrhea. Basically, prepare your stomach for the worst.

You’re More Likely to Get Sick

The quickest way to ruin a great vacation is by catching a cold, and flying certainly doesn’t make it easy. Travel has a tendency to weaken your immune system, in part because red-eye flights and long hauls mess up your circadian rhythm which can alter the number of T-cells your body normally produces.

If it wasn’t bad enough that your immune system was struggling, airplanes are a mecca for bacteria thanks to the recycled air, the close proximity of your fellow passengers, and the fact that people have been all over those tray tables, headrests and seatback pockets. According to a study by CBC’s Marketplace, almost half of the surfaces swabbed on airplanes “contained levels of bacteria or yeast and mold that could put a person at risk for infection.”

To prevent illness, don’t forget your hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes. Wipe down your headrest, tray table and seat belt (three of the dirtiest places on a plane), and avoid the seatback pocket altogether. People have been known to put dirty diapers in there!

Motion Sickness Happens

You won’t get altitude sickness on an airplane, but you might get motion sickness. This happens because you’re hurtling through the air at 400 to 500 knots, but your eyes don’t actually detect any motion. If you’re prone to getting car sick, a motion-sickness medicine like Meclizine Hydrochloride or Dimenhydrinate may help. Make sure it’s non-drowsy unless you’re planning to sleep on your long-haul.

You Might Even Get Sunburn

The thinner the atmosphere, the more radiation exposure you’ll get from the sun—and those UV rays are powerful. Yes, you can literally get a sunburn if you’re sitting in a window seat during a daytime flight. Make sure to apply some sunscreen or close the window shades. There’s plenty of time to accidentally get a sunburn once you’re actually on vacation, not before it.

View Comments (5)

5 Comments

  1. davistev

    October 21, 2019 at 1:34 pm

    Plus severe arse pain from sitting too long, knee damage from the seat in front of you and psychological trauma from having to listen to the booze fueled stories from your seat mate

  2. fotographer

    October 22, 2019 at 5:21 am

    best to sit in J or F … just saying.

  3. GlobalMatt

    October 23, 2019 at 9:30 am

    +1000 on fotographer’s comments

  4. bart889

    October 23, 2019 at 3:35 pm

    “The air you’re breathing in an airplane actually does come from outside, and when you’re cruising a mile high, there’s not really a lot of moisture in the air.”

    A mile high? Do you know that a mile is 5,280 feet, and most commercial aircraft cruise at 35,000 – 40,000 feet. That’s about seven miles high.

  5. Long Zhiren

    October 28, 2019 at 11:15 am

    As for getting sick, it doesn’t help that most people have bad hygiene and have no concept of how to cover their mouths when they cough and sneeze. Wearing a mask that blocks out contaminated moisture particulates from being breathed in, helps quite a bit. It’s too bad the sick people don’t wear the masks.

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