Air Travel

Health considerations during air travel

Air travel has become so common that many people think of it as routine as taking the bus was in years past. But air travel may pose some discomforts you should be aware of. The following are tips that are especially useful for those traveling abroad, those who may be on airplanes for long periods of time, or passengers crossing multiple time zones.

Know your airline's travel requirements. Also be aware of travel advisories for where you are going, since these can change often. For the most current information, see the CDC travel information.

Tips for making air travel safer and more comfortable

  • Carry medicines in your carry-on luggage. Keep all medicines in their original bottles. Before you leave, talk with your healthcare provider about whether you should change medicine dosing, particularly if you will be crossing time zones and your eating and sleeping schedules will change. Be sure to bring enough medicines that will last longer than the planned trip in case you have any delays along the way.

  • If you have diabetes, epilepsy, or any other chronic condition that could need emergency medical attention, carry a notification and ID card with you. Have the name and phone number of your healthcare provider with you, as well as a list with names and dosages of all your medicines. Call the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at least 72 hours before your flight if you will need information or special help at security screening checkpoints.

  • Be sure to drink plenty of nonalcoholic, decaffeinated beverages and water to prevent dehydration. Remember, the air in airplanes is very dry.

Relieving pain in your ears during air travel

  • If you have a head cold or swollen sinuses, try taking a decongestant before you get on the airplane. If the plane trip is long enough, take one again at least an hour before landing. Follow dosing instructions on the medicine. If you have high blood pressure or heart problems, you should not take decongestants without the approval of your healthcare provider.

  • Swallow often and chew gum during the flight, especially during take-off and as the plane reduces altitude before landing. 

  • Drink plenty of fluids.

  • Pinch your nostrils shut and breathe through your mouth. Force air into the back of your nose as if trying to blow your nose.

Relieving motion sickness during air travel

  • Eat a light meal or snack before and during travel. Don't have alcoholic beverages.

  • Keep eyes fixed on the horizon and limit rapid head movements. Sleep if you are able to.

  • Sit in a window seat and over the wing section of the airplane, because this usually reduces the sensation of turbulence.

  • Talk with your healthcare provider about medicine for motion sickness.

Other healthy tips to consider during air travel

  • Walk as often as it is safe to do so during the flight to prevent blood clots. Select an aisle seat when possible if motion sickness is not a problem.

  • Drink plenty of water.

  • If you wear contact lenses, apply rewetting solution to your lenses often to combat the dryness of the air.

  • Stretch calf muscles while sitting. These exercises can help:

    • Raise and lower your heels while keeping your toes on the floor.

    • Raise and lower your toes while keeping your heels on the floor.

    • Tighten and release your leg muscles.

  • Wear support stockings if you have problems with circulation.

  • Arrange for special meals ahead of time.

  • Arrange for a wheelchair, if needed, ahead of time.

Tips for preventing jet lag

Rapid travel across several time zones disturbs normal body rhythm and causes many physical and psychological stresses on the body. Commonly referred to as jet lag, it rarely causes any severe problems. You may be uncomfortable for a few days before your body adjusts to your new time zone. The symptoms are usually worse when flying long distances in a west-to-east direction.

What are the symptoms of jet lag?

These are the most common symptoms of jet lag:

  • General fatigue

  • Sleepiness during the day

  • Trouble with normal sleeping patterns

  • Impaired mental ability and memory

  • Irritability

  • Headaches

  • Stomach cramps, diarrhea, or constipation

  • Reduced physical activity

The symptoms of jet lag may look like other health conditions. Talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How long does it take to recover from jet lag?

The rule of thumb is that for west-to-east trips, it generally takes one day to recover for each time zone you crossed. For east-to-west trips, one day is needed for each one and a half time zones crossed.

Some people like to break up a long trip with a stopover to help themselves adjust to the new time zone to which they are traveling. It's also a good idea to build in an extra day or two of low-key activities to help compensate for jet lag.

Is there any way to prevent jet lag?

Nothing can eliminate jet lag entirely. These tips will help limit its effects and help you recover more quickly:

  • Drink plenty of beverages to keep yourself well-hydrated during your flight. Don't have alcoholic or caffeinated beverages.

  • Eat smaller meals that are high in protein and low in fat before, during, and just after your flight.

  • Try going to bed earlier than usual for a few days before an eastbound flight. If flying westbound, stay up later than usual.

  • Set your watch to your destination during your flight to start making the mental adjustment to your new time zone.

  • If arriving early in the morning at your destination, sleep as much as you can during the flight. Try to make it through the day and go to bed early that evening. If arriving at your destination in the evening, plan to go to bed shortly after you arrive.

  • There are prescription medicines that may help you sleep. Talk with your healthcare provider about the use of a sleep aid. 

What is important to know about aircraft disinsection?

If you are traveling abroad, you should be aware that in some countries, aircraft passenger compartments are sprayed with insecticide while passengers are on board. This is done to prevent bringing in mosquitoes and other insects from one country to another. The World Health Organization has found these procedures to be safe, but they may make certain health conditions worse. These include allergies, asthma, and certain respiratory disorders.

Countries where this process generally takes place include those in Latin America, the Caribbean, Australia, and the South Pacific regions. For more information about these procedures, contact your travel agent or airline.

Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2023
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