It’s that time of the year—the time when many of us must fly to spend the holidays with family, friends, tropical beaches or ski slopes. But sometimes those friendly skies aren’t so much so—and can in fact be harmful to your health. Outside of plummeting to the ground in a fiery inferno from 10,000 feet, nothing’s worse than spending five hours cramped, sore and bloated, and arriving at your destination with a cold sucks more than anything (outside of death).
While there’s nothing we can do about painfully long lines or leg room, we do want to help make your flight as comfortable and healthy as possible.
According to the November UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, there is an increased risk of catching a cold on a plane, but not because of poor ventilation, as most people think. If you get sick after a plane trip, it’s probably because you sat near someone who was sneezing or coughing, or you touched an object or surface that a sick person touched—like a ramp railing or a bathroom doorknob. Rather than wasting your money on products like Airborne (basically just a concentrated vitamin tablet), make sure you frequently wash your hands and try not to touch your face. Another great way to avoid getting sick is to get a good night’s rest (eight hours) the night before your flight—even one night’s poor sleep can significantly suppress the immune system. Also, many planes are kept cool, so make sure you dress warmly or bring an extra sweater and a pair of socks in your carry-on.
Okay, so you’re rested and been washing your hands to the point of pruning, so why does your stomach hurt? Airplanes are actually low-pressure environments and that can cause the gas inside you to expand. You can avoid this gassy bloat by skipping heavy, fatty, salty foods, like pizza, sausages, nachos, fries or any other thing that you know makes you pooty. Salty foods also make you retain water. Caffeinated drinks and alcohol are diuretics (make you pee a lot), and recirculated air itself can be dehydrating; so make sure you drink lots of water, because dehydration can make you that more susceptible to airborne illnesses.
If you’ve avoided most of the above you may just find that your only problem is deplaning with aches and pains. Long hours sitting can lead to poor circulation, swelling, sore joints and lethargy. Walk as much as possible before boarding a flight and during any layovers. Also, try holding your carry-on luggage at a 90 degree angle to your body, then raising and lowering it up to 20 times (try for three sets). On the plane, do calf raises and torso twists while waiting for the bathroom. In your seat, flex your gluteus (butt) muscles and hold for as long as possible, repeating as many times as feels comfortable. Then flex your trapezius muscles by doing shoulder hunches until tired. People may look at you like you’re a freak, but at least you’ll be a happy and pain-free freak, unlike Mr. Crankypants behind you who bumped and pulled on the back of your seat for the last four hours. Some people deserve colds, really.