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Don't let flying make you sick Tips to prevent problems when flying
Illustration of a man with health supplies at his airplane seat
Illustration by Arthur Giron
The airline industry's largest trade group says that financial woes will probably mean more crowded planes, which can make you not only cranky but also sick. Here's how to minimize problems:

Move around

Any travel in which you remain immobile can be unhealthy, particularly if it lasts more than 8 hours. The result could be deep vein thrombosis (DVT), an uncommon but potentially fatal blood clotting. At increased risk are older passengers and those who smoke, have cancer, are pregnant, or are obese.

Prevent it
Drink lots of fluids, but avoid caffeine and alcohol. Try for a seat near a bulkhead or exit row. Walk around and stretch your legs and arms regularly. People who have had recent surgery, are taking oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy, have restricted mobility, or have blood-clotting problems should consult a physician before long-distance travel. Some passengers might need support hose to prevent leg swelling.

Recognize it
Symptoms are swelling or pain in the calf or thigh of one leg, redness or discoloration, and increased warmth in the skin.

Treat it
Anticoagulant medications are usually prescribed.

Jettison jet lag

Anyone traveling across more than one time zone can suffer from jet lag, but it's often worst when passengers fly east.

Prevent it
Again, drink plenty of liquids. On super-long trips, try for a stopover. And avoid large meals. An animal study released in May by the Harvard Medical School suggests that long-distance travelers may be able to reset their body clocks by fasting for 12 to 16 hours, then eating at their destination's breakfast time.

Recognize it
Symptoms are temporary and might include sleepiness or difficulty sleeping, trouble completing tasks, headache, and upset stomach.

Treat it
Some evidence suggests that taking the supplement melatonin at bedtime might help. If you're going eastward, seek bright light in the morning; westward, in the afternoon. Spend time outdoors and consider short naps.

Breathe easy

A review of studies published in 2005 in the British medical journal The Lancet called commercial airlines "a suitable environment for the spread of pathogens carried by passengers or crew." To stay healthy and comfortable:

  • Carry antibacterial wipes or a small container of hand sanitizer.

  • If you have a cold or allergy symptoms, consider using a decongestant.

  • Drink water to counteract dry cabin air.

  • To avoid earaches, swallow often, suck on lozenges, or chew gum. Taking an oral or nasal decongestant 30 minutes before flying might help.

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