The holidays are coming and that sometimes means taking an airplane to visit friends and relatives. Since it is well known that airline travel presents the body with a myriad of stressors and this festive time is concurrent with the yearly cold and flu season, it is wise to be proactive and take steps to stay strong and healthy. Studies show there is an increased vulnerability to illness when you fly due to being in a confined space with a large number of people, shared air, and low cabin humidity. On a plane, your risk of catching a cold may be as much as 20% higher than on the ground.1
Your susceptibility to illness may be intensified by the concentrated exposure to various electromagnetic fields. These electromagnetic fields (EMFs) may come from the cosmic radiation from the flight, EMFs from the airplane itself, passenger laptops, cell phones, and scanners at the airport. Extensive research has shown that EMFs affect the immune and nervous system, even at low levels of exposure.2 Because of the high concentration of EMF exposure in airports and on airplanes, it’s wise to think about strengthening your immune system before your flight and minimizing your exposure while traveling as best you can.
How to Avoid Getting Sick on the Plane
& Other Tips for Safe Travels
I’ll share my tips for a healthy trip – before, during, and after your plane flight. These tips will help you avoid getting sick on the plane or during your vacation and to help you maintain wellness, whether you are traveling for a long or short time.
Before the Trip
1. Get healthy before you travel.
Don’t travel when you are sick. The stress of travel can exacerbate any illnesses you already have. If you have anything communicable you could cause others to become ill and a little cold can become worse and perhaps even develop into a more serious respiratory illness. If you have a broken limb or are wearing a cast, talk to your doctor about your plans to fly. Flying can cause swelling and can cause circulation issues. Recast if necessary to provide extra room in your cast for swelling on the flight. Consider packing using a nasal spray like Xlear if you are prone to sinus trouble and feel more vulnerable to colds. That will help you keep your nose moist while in a dry climate and may reduce the number of harmful bacteria and allergens in your nasal passage.
One simple measure is to get good rest and sleep before you travel. Being exhausted and stressed adds to the body’s burden.
3. Eat Well
Weeks before your trip, upgrade your diet if needed, focusing on organic, whole foods. Do not eat sugar a few days before flight or on the plane. Like a chemical exposure sugar depresses the immune system and makes the entire body more vulnerable to chemicals, radiation, bacteria, viruses, and other stressors. You should also avoid any type of processed food, additives, preservatives, or hydrogenated oils, particularly in the days leading up to the flight. A well-nourished body is less vulnerable to all stressors.
4. Prepare healthy snacks & food for your trip
Traveling is not the time to splurge or cheat on your healthy regimen – avoid eating any junk food in the airport or airplane as this undermines your immune system and makes you more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria. If you have favorite whole food supplements such as a greens powder mix or Vitamin C, pack them as instant, easy to digest nutritional support. If you are prone to motion sickness consider packing ginger capsules and healthy, organic pretzels or crackers (Mary’s Gone Crackers Everything Pretzels) as a good go-to for plane snacks.
5. Avoid Chemical Exposures
Avoid chemical and particulate exposure that will make the lungs and sinuses more vulnerable to infection when flying. Cleaning with toxic products and exposure to pesticides decrease immune defense.
6. Keep Your Distance & Stay Well
Avoid people who may be contagious before your trip. Breathe out if you are in the company of someone sneezing or coughing and wash your hands often with soap and water. For more tips on staying well before you fly, read Are Germs Really the Problem? Rethinking Cold and Flu.
7. Stay Hydrated before your flight
Dehydration makes it easier to pick up illness. And drinking alcohol contributes to dehydration. Avoid alcohol on the plane and even the day before you fly.
8. Choose Your Seat Wisely
Try to sit towards the front of the plane so that you can exit quickly. After landing (on some flights), the back door is opened and fumes from the fuel enter the plane – especially affecting the back seats. If you are prone to motion sickness, choose an aisle seat over the wing as this is the area with the smoothest ride, where you are less likely to feel motion. If an aisle seat is not available, at least choose a seat that faces in the direction you are traveling, so that the forward motion your body feels will match what you see.
9. Wear comfortable clothing for the trip
Dress in layers as temperatures can vary on airplanes. You don’t want to use the blankets and pillows the airline provides as they are prone to carrying germs from previous flights.3 Wear comfortable shoes for fast walking in the airport and make sure to wear socks so that when you have to take your shoes off, you won’t be barefooted and be exposed to bacterial and fungal infection.4 For more tips on what to wear when you’re flying, read The Healthy Travel Guide: How to Travel the Branch Basics Way.
10. Go Light When Packing Your Carry-On
Super heavy carry-ons can cause back and muscle injury. Take just what you need for the flight to avoid straining when you are walking through the airport or lifting the suitcase into the overhead bin.
At the Airport
1. Opt Out of Radiation Scan and Take the Pat Down
The Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security maintain that full-body back scatter X-ray scanners emit safe levels of radiation, but Brenda Powell, MD, a travel medicine expert at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, recommends a pat-down instead. “There is really no absolutely safe dose of radiation,” says Dr. Dong Kim, chair of the department of neurosurgery at the University of Texas Medical School. “Each exposure is additive, and there is no need to incur extra radiation when there is an alternative,” Kim said, adding he always opts instead for the pat-down exam at TSA checkpoints when he flies.5 If you’re able, apply for TSA Pre-Check to avoid the lines and the full body scanners. If you are a frequent flyer, you can apply for preferred frequent flyers benefits offered by some airlines. These benefits enable you to walk through without having to remove your computer, take off your shoes and coat, and even avoid the full-body scanner.
Drink plenty of water to make sure you are hydrated right before flight. We recommend a great travel water bottle to convert tap water into safe drinking water in Choosing a Safe Countertop Water Filter for Your Home and Travel.
3. Avoid Unnecessary Exposures
At the airport before your flight and when boarding the plane, be alert to avoid chemical exposure. For example, if you notice an airstream when you are boarding the plane, it may be carrying in fuel or exhaust. The moment you smell it, hold your breath and wait to breathe in again until you are on the plane. When in doubt, if you notice a synthetic or chemical smell, protect yourself by holding your breath. Exposures to synthetic perfumes, petroleum fumes, or exhaust stress the liver and increases vulnerability to infection.
4. prevent Motion Sickness
If you are prone to motion sickness, take ginger capsules before boarding the flight. Livestrong has a helpful guide to choosing and taking ginger pills if you’d like more information. In general, healthy eating also helps prevent motion sickness. Avoid heavy or spicy meals before you fly as smaller, less spicy meals are less apt to promote motion sickness.
On the Airplane
1. Choose Your Seat or Change It as Needed
Try to avoid sitting next to someone with heavy perfume as exposure to chemicals increases vulnerability to infection. If you are prone to motion sickness, ask for an aisle seat over a wing, as this is the area with the smoothest ride. If that’s not available, choose a seat that faces in the direction you are traveling, so that the forward motion your body feels will match what you see. If you find that you have been seated next to someone who is coughing and sneezing, quietly notify the flight staff to see if there is another seat where you can sit. Even though the seat may be less desirable, it’s better than sitting next to someone who is sick.
2. Direct Your Air
Use the air director above the seat. Open the air vent and aim it so that the fresh, filtered air passes just in front of the face. Filtered airplane air can help direct airborne contagions, scented products, and perfumes away from you.
3. Filter Your Air with Nasal Screens or Masks
A mask can offer some protection for for you if other passengers are ill or for other passengers if you are sick. Seeing another passenger wearing a face mask may cause some alarm in the U.S., but in other countries, people have no qualms about wearing a mask in public. In fact, on a recent flight to Japan I noticed that many of the Japanese passengers were wearing face masks. Then after arriving in Tokyo, I saw people wearing masks in the airports, at the trains and in public places. I found out that it is a common practice for the Japanese people to wear masks not to protect themselves from catching a cold or flu, but to protect others from catching their cold. If you don’t feel comfortable wearing a mask, try nasal screens, which are almost invisible and allow you to even eat while filtering your air.
- 3-M Mask #8233 – This is a N100 rated respirator, which means it is approved for protection from airborne viruses and bacteria. This mask filters out very fine particles like mold, asbestos, and lead dust as well. This is a particulate mask, but it does not protect from chemical exposure. Many people wear these on planes to protect from contagious illness. You can find this type of mask for about $6.00 – $8.00 at your local home improvement store as well.
- I Can Breathe Honeycomb Mask – This mask reduces exposure to smoke, dust, pollution, fragrances, diesel fumes, mold and other particulates, which makes it helpful for airplane travel. Replace the filter when breathing becomes difficult or odor comes through even after adjusting nose wire.
- First Defense Nasal Screens – If you prefer to not wear a mask, consider these small, adhesive nasal screens, which discretely filter out dust, bacteria, viruses, pollen, and smoke.
4. Clean Your Hands & Seating Area
Wash your hands and wipe down arm rests, tray and any hard surfaces. Remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating.
5. Stay Hydrated
Drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol. Bring a water bottle on the plane and sip during the flight. If you order water from the drink cart, make sure you order it in the can unopened with a cup – not already poured into a cup. This way you will to avoid germs from coughing passengers as your open drink is passed.
6. Combat Dryness
Commercial airplanes have very low humidity, which can lead to dried up mucus membranes. This increases your vulnerability to infection. Keeping nasal passages moist can also reduce risk of infection. For extra support, use Xlear Nasal Wash (gentle enough for infants) or Saline Solution before, during, or after your flight.6
7. Get up & Stretch
Stretch when possible, especially on long flights. Try to get up every hour or so and walk up and down the aisle. Also, stretch your legs at your seat and contract muscles in legs and buttocks to aid circulation. Lack of blood flow to the lower limbs can be a problem for some people and lack of movement for long periods can cause a blood clot to form (more on this subject below).
8. Avoid Airline Pillows and Blankets
The airline’s blankets and pillows may be loaded with germs and bacteria. Only use them if they are packaged in safety wrap indicating that they have been cleaned. Alternatively, bring your own.
9. Get Some Sleep
Take this time to take a break and rest or sleep. Sleeping as much as possible helps with a big time zone change. If you are on a long flight, the window seat of an exit row gives extra legroom and is one of the best seats for sleeping. Avoid seats near bathrooms or flight attendant stations if you know in advance that you’ll want to sleep. Consider buying a Travel Halo (no memory foam), using earplugs and/or using noise-canceling headphones. Using both earplugs and headphones will drown out most sound.
10. Avoid Airplane Ear
When an airplane takes off and lands, the air pressure in the cabin changes rapidly, and if the eustachian tube doesn’t adjust quickly enough pressure can build up and cause pain and hearing loss. Here’s how to avoid ear pain on the plane:
- Use EarPlanes to avoid issues with airplane ear. This particular earplug is recommended by doctors and tested by U.S. Navy Pilots.
- Swallowing or yawning activates muscles that open the eustachian tube and allows the middle ear to replenish its air supply, often eliminating the symptoms of airplane ear.
- Take a deep breath. Before letting the breath out, pinch your nose and close your mouth, then breathe out. While no air comes out of your mouth or nose, the air may reach your Eustachian tubes, causing the pressure to equalize. You may feel a pop, which is a good sign the procedure is working. You may need to do this a few times in a row, especially when the plane is descending. Avoid sleeping during the plane’s descent in order to follow this procedure to keep your ears from hurting.
- Hold your tongue on the roof of your mouth, and swallow repeatedly until ears pops
- Pull earlobes out and up, meanwhile open/close mouth repeatedly, keep swallowing until the ears pop.
- Infants: suck pacifiers.
- Chew gum.
- Drink hot drinks.
11. Avoid Deep Venous Thrombosis
Deep venous thrombosis (DVT) is a condition where you get blood clots in your legs, particularly on longer flights (lasting more than two hours). Risk factors for experiencing DVT on a flight, include:
- being over 60 years old
- history of heart disease
- recent surgery (on the lower body)
- history of blood clots
If you are at risk for DVT, it’s best to avoid alcohol and caffeine while flying. Alcohol and caffeine are dehydrating and so is the air on the plane. Drinking water can help prevent DVT, but if you are at high risk for these blood clots, other precautions are needed. Get up and move by walking up and down the aisle every hour. Consider wearing compression hose which may help reduce your risk while you fly. Exercises, such as keeping your feet flat on the ground and bringing your heel up and down, can also improve circulation. Notify the flight crew if you are having pain or swelling in your extremities or any other strange symptoms with a sudden onset.
12. Avoid Motion Sickness
Motion sickness occurs when your brain receives signals from the inner ear that your body is moving and conflicting signals from the eyes saying that your body is still. Keeping your eyes on the horizon is helpful. The nausea should end when you’re back on solid ground. Until then, focus on calming your stomach so you can get through your flight.
- Ideally if you are prone to motion sickness take ginger capsules before boarding the flight.7
- Sometimes eating helps, but sometimes it doesn’t. Experiment to see what works for you. Crackers and pretzels may be helpful.
- Avoid hot drinks, which will increase nausea and motion sickness.
- Ask a flight attendant for water with ice and sip until the nausea passes.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and fatty foods, which can worsen nausea.
- Direct the overhead fan at your head.
- Avoid sudden movements of your head, which can aggravate motion sickness.
- Don’t overheat – remove any excess layers of clothing.
- Rub an ice cube from your drink against your forehead and neck.
- Do not read or use any video devices. Reading or looking at moving images can further worsen nausea caused by motion sickness.
- Listen to soothing music or a distracting podcast on your MP3 player instead.
- Close your eyes and try to sleep. Motion sickness ends when you fall asleep because your eyes are no longer able to transmit any information to your brain about your surroundings. Even if you can’t sleep, keep your eyes closed whenever possible. Take deep, slow breaths.
- Stay in your seat and avoid standing.
After Your Flight
1. Wipe your Luggage
After traveling and before putting your suitcase away, wipe down the exterior. Always test in an inconspicuous area to make sure the exterior will tolerate the spray without staining or damaging it.
2. Schedule Time to Rest – Time Zone Change
When you move quickly across time zones, your body’s circadian rhythm clocks get out of balance, making you feel tired and wasted from the flight. Jet lag can really disrupt a vacation. To avoid jet-lag, get right on the new time zone as quickly as you can. For example, if it’s bedtime, try to go to bed, and if it’s daytime, try to stay awake. Clifford Saper, of Harvard University’s Neuroscience Department, has found a way to speed up the body’s adjustment to a new time zone. Saper suggests that people fast (if possible) or eat very little on the plane trip. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, but drink plenty of water and sleep as much as you can on the flight.8 The US Military, the US Secret Service, and the Central Intelligence Agency all use this same method for fighting jet-lag. You can also supplement with melatonin on your trip, which promotes immune system integrity and normal circadian rhythms. Melatonin minimizes jet-lag, is a sleep regulator, and is a potent antioxidant offering protection against free radicals, which can cause cellular damage. Take as directed in the evening before going to bed on day before you travel, while you’re on your trip, and for several days after you return.
3. Stay in a Nontoxic Hotel Room
Many hotels offer a “green room” program which provide an array of features such as using unscented cleaning products and unscented linens and bedding. When booking rooms, ask for rooms that have not been painted or recently remodeled in any way and have not been sprayed with pesticides. For more information, check out the Green Hotel Association or Stay Well Rooms. Local Bed & Breakfasts are often conscious of this as well.
4. Flush Your Sinuses
If you are prone to sinus infection, a Neti Pot (a ceramic pot that uses a salt water solution to flush out the nasal cavity) can rinse out viruses and pollen after a flight, reducing your chance of illness.
5. Take a Salt & Soda Soak
A bath with salt and baking soda will help your body detox the effects of radiation experienced while traveling or you can wait until you get home for this if not convenient on your trip. I’ve shared the full tutorial for this healing bath here: Salt and Soda Soak – a Radiation Detox Bath.
What about you – how do you stay well on a trip, especially when you are traveling by plane? Let us know in the comments below!