The health risks of flying that you need to know about

The health risks of flying that you need to know about

Flying is one of the most convenient and quickest forms of transportation across the country, with about 2.5 million people traveling by air every single day.

But, as expedient as flying can be, you may be facing some unexpected health concerns in the process.

Dr. David Braun, an occupational medicine physician with the Advocate Medical Group Travel Clinic in Bloomington, Ill., shares three things that can happen to your body when traveling by plane and how to stay as healthy as possible while traveling this spring break.

  1. Increased chance of getting sick: “Air travel increases one’s chances of getting sick or contracting an infectious disease,” says Dr. Braun. “It brings many people with varying degrees of health into a confined space, for an extended period, in an environment with less humidity and less oxygen than a similar space at ground level.” It’s important to take precautionary steps that can help you avoid getting sick during or after your travels. Braun offers practical tips to provide a defense against this infection-prone environment that include:
  • Using hand sanitizer after touching common surfaces and before eating or drinking
  • Use a saline nasal spray to help replace the natural moisture decreased by the altitude and lower humidity
  • Those who have an underlying medical condition or a respiratory illness should consider using a surgical-type face mask to create a barrier to infection


  1. That painful, popping sensation in your ear: Frequent flyers know this pain better than anyone – the constant, painful popping that can take over your ear the minute you take off – something many people dread. Dr. Braun advises:
  • Make sure to treat the underlying conditions that increase ear pain prior to travel, such as allergic rhinitis, sinusitis and eustachian tube dysfunction
  • Chew gum
  • Drink water to enable swallowing, which will help clear the eustachian tube during altitude transitions with take-off and landing
  • Consider using over-the-counter medications, such as decongestants, for short periods of time around the flight to help offset any symptoms flying may inflict


  1. The effect of drinking alcohol in the air, as opposed to the on the ground: “It is a myth that altitude affects alcohol metabolism, but certain altitude and decreased humidity factors can lead to unanticipated issues with alcohol while flying,” says Dr. Braun. Lower oxygen levels on the plane can lead to decreased mental alertness, on top of what one normally experiences when consuming alcohol. Decreased humidity in an airline cabin creates a greater sense of thirst, often encouraging people to drink more beverages –alcoholic or not, Dr. Braun adds.

If you are flying this spring break, don’t forget your hand sanitizer and nasal spray, and remember that you may need one fewer drink than usual while in the air.

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About the Author

Danielle Sisco
Danielle Sisco

Danielle Sisco, health enews contributor, is a recent graduate of Illinois State University and a former public affairs and marketing intern at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital and Advocate BroMenn Medical Center. She has a Bachelor's of Science Degree in public relations and is currently working at a public relations agency in Chicago. In her free time, Danielle enjoys going to country music concerts, playing volleyball, traveling, blogging and spending quality time with her family, friends and puppy.