Travel and your health

I am not afraid of flying but I am irrationlly afraid of making my flight.  My husband has learned, by this point in our travel history, to not mess with me on the mornings we leave.  By not mess with me, I mean; not talk to me, not look at me, not question why I am pacing in the driveway an hour before we need to leave.  I have a right to be nervous because believe me, watching your plane pull away from front row seats at the gate, stinks.  I have learned the hard way that vacation is way too valuable to waste half a day trying to rebook a flight.  I missed two flights in my life – one was not my fault and the other was my husbands fault.  On our second honeymoon, he brought an expired passport to the airport.  His usual beguiling smile and convincing story-telling (a.k.a. BS), surprisingly, did nothing to sway homeland security.  The other time, I was having too much fun at the airport bar to hear the final boarding call – blame the bartender.  So, when I am traveling by air, I feel sick until I get on the plane.  Then, on the plane, I feel sick until I get off.  Once off, I always feel a little nauseous and woozy for several hours.  It is amazing I love vacation as much as I do!

What does flying do to your body?

1.  Anxiety – If you are not a frequent air-traveller or perhaps, even if you are, there is always an element of anxiety.  From the planning, to the rushing to make your flight, to figuring out how much constitutes 3oz., to walking through the metal detector, to the safety instructions that let you know what to do in case of a crash (here’s a tip … pray), to the tragically poor wine selection, there are numerous opportunities to experience stress.  The stress causes increased blood pressure, rapid heart rate, headache, nausea, and overall crankiness – not good for you or the one sitting next to you.  Treatment: leaving early, deep breaths, believing that you really are not a terrorist and will not be stopped and interrogated — harder than it sounds, and BYOB.

2.  Dehydration – Dehydration occurs because of a variety of changes in the cabin once the plane doors are shut.  The changes in pressure accompanied by the recycled air result in decreased air humidity and increased fluid loss.  This can cause headache, nausea, dry skin and dry nasal passages – which make you more susceptible to infection.  Solution: drink lots of water before, during and after the flight – a problem for any woman who has given birth to a child.  Avoid alcohol – a problem for any woman who has a child, and moisturize your skin frequently.

3.  Altitude – The higher you get, the lower the oxygen content in the air you breathe.  While the cabin is pressurized, there is still a lower oxygen content in the air on a plane than in the air at sea level.  It is approximately similar to being on top of a tall mountain.  It shouldn’t affect you much because you aren’t physically active on a plane, but it may cause lightheadedness.  The biggest problem with the change in altitude is the change in air pressure which causes ear pain or barotrauma.  The unequal pressures on either side of the eardrum can cause pain.  In order to equalize the pressure, the eustachian tube needs to open.  Barotrauma can occur in anyone, but those with congestion are more likely to suffer.  Opening and closing your mouth, yawning, and frequent swallowing can help.  If you experience ear pain with air travel, chew gum or swallow fluids during take off and landing.  If you are congested from a cold or allergies, take a nasal decongestant prior to flying.

4.  Fatigue – Considering I can’t sleep sitting up, this is my biggest problem.  It is difficult for most people to sleep on a plane.  Plan ahead.  Get a good night’s sleep.  Bring soothing music and a copy of War and Peace.  Or, just accept that you aren’t going to sleep and try to make use of the time.  You will be less frustrated and will feel more refreshed when you land, than you would if you tossed and turned the whole flight.  I tried a sleeping pill once on a long flight to a wedding in Brazil.  I was still sleeping at the cocktail hour the following day.  Unless you know how a medication will affect you, I don’t recommend taking it for the first time on your way to a fun destination.

5. Confinement – Sitting in one place for an extended period of time puts you at risk for blood clots, including deep vein thrombosis (DVT).  DVT puts you at risk for pulmonary embolism which puts you at risk for sudden death.  Blood clots can form in your legs, travel to other parts of your body and cause serious problems.  Anyone can develop a blood clot but if you have a history of heart disease, stroke, cancer or prior blood clot, you are at increased risk.  Prevention includes wearing compression stockings which help to circulate the blood, moving around as often as possible, avoiding dehydration and, if your risk factors are significant, a dose of anticoagulant before you fly.

When air travel began, people used those little white bags in the seat pocket in front of you all the time.  Part of this was the technology, but a bigger part was the anxiety associated with sitting thousands of miles above the earth in a tin can that has no right to be there.  Now, air travel is accepted as one of the safest modes of transportation.  Luckily the pilots do not have children screaming their name over and over while trying to pass a sippy cup back to seat 2D.  Hopefully, they are not checking email on their blackberries and texting while ascending to 30,000 feet.

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