It can seem inevitable: spend a few hours in a confined space with a couple hundred other bodies thousands of feet in the air, and you're going to get sick.
While it is true that traveling carries certain risks to our health, catching a cold is by no means a foregone conclusion. From reducing our exposure to germs to prepping our immune system in advance, there are a number of steps we can take while flying to limit the risk of any negative health effects.
Much of staying healthy on a plane is simply making sure you're in a healthy state going into the flight. If your immune system is already weak, the chances of catching something go up dramatically. To that end, you want to be sure you're eating well — including fruits and veggies — both in the days prior and during your travel itself. We know the stress of traveling, not to mention the usual time crunch, can make fast food look oh-so-appealing, but try to stick with healthier salads and sandwiches in transit. Better yet, bring your own snacks.
If you don't already take them regularly, you may also want to consider adding some vitamin supplements to your diet in the days before a flight. Something like Emergen-C is especially smart if you're prone to catching colds while traveling.
Manage Your Germ Exposure
This is one step that starts at the airport, where the concentration of germs is actually higher than in an airplane due to the air not being changed or filtered as aggressively. While we hopefully don't need to tell you to wash your hands regularly, it is also a good idea to bring along a travel-sized bottle of antibacterial hand sanitizer. Use it before eating anything — especially the ubiquitous in-flight finger foods like pretzels or chips — and after touching high-contact surfaces like door handles and overhead bins.
You will also want to bring disinfectant wipes in your carry-on bag. Wipe down your armrests, tray tables, and any touchscreen entertainment centers before you use them — especially if you're lucky enough to be on one of the airlines with the best entertainment options. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do about the germs that accumulate on the pages of a magazine except to forego the seatback literature altogether. Bring your own book, or enjoy the rare time with nothing but your own thoughts — better bored than sneezing.
Stretch Your Muscles
"Economy class syndrome," or deep vein thrombosis, refers to the possibility of developing a blood clot in veins deep beneath the surface of your skin as a result of sitting in the confines of economy seats for a long period of time. While research has found there is nothing inherently more risky about the economy class itself, sitting immobile for hours on end is never a good idea.
On long flights in particular, you want to be sure you're moving periodically. If you are seated in an inside seat, take advantage of when your seatmates are in the bathroom to get up and stretch your muscles. Even a brief stretch will help restore circulation, lowering the risk of a clot. While seated, flexing your calf muscles and raising and lowering your toes can promote blood flow in your legs, which are often the most likely locales for a clot.
The Center for Disease Control has determined that most people who develop blood clots while traveling have other preexisting risk factors. There are a variety of such factors, including the following:
- Over 40 years old
- Surgery or injury within the last three months
- Birth control containing estrogen, including the pill, rings, and patches
- Pregnancy and recent childbirth
- Previous blood clot
- Family history of blood clots
- Varicose veins
If you have any of the above factors, it is especially important to take steps to promote blood flow while on a long flight.
Airplane cabins have lower humidity than most of us are used to, which makes hydration — something too many of us don't do well enough anyway — all the more essential. Bring your own empty water bottle in your carry-on bag, and fill it up once you get through security. You'll save yourself either having to buy an overpriced drink from one of the airport shops, or from downing the tiny plastic cup in-flight and then being out of luck when you get a tickle in your drier-than-usual throat ten minutes later.
Bonus: The better hydrated you are, the more often you'll need to use the restroom, which will get you up and moving.
While we don't want to be party poopers, it is also our duty to mention that both coffee and alcohol are diuretics, meaning they will dehydrate you. (Not that you needed another reason to avoid the airplane coffee.) Leave the caffeine and the party for after you land, in order to avoid becoming further dried out.
Keep in mind that the lower humidity will affect your skin as well. Bring moisturizer for your face and hands to keep them hydrated and healthy during your flight.
We get it: Sometimes a red eye is unavoidable. Add in potential time zone changes and a loss of your usual daily routine, and travel is bound to do a number on your bodily rhythms.
You can mitigate those risks, however, by making sure you aren't shortchanging yourself on sleep in the nights leading up to a flight — whatever time of day it may be. Not only will you keep your body and immune system from becoming rundown, but you'll also be better able to say no to all the sugary snacks and stick to healthier choices instead.