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  » Advice for travelers  »  Jet Lag and other Health Problems on Air Flights

Air Travel : In-Flight problems

The circulating air in aircraft cabins is kept dry to protect equipment and this can mean passengers may become significantly dehydrated. Alcohol (especially spirits) and caffeine containing drinks can make this problem worse. Drinking adequate fluids (sufficient to keep the urine pale) is necessary and skin moisturisers can help dry skin.

Poor circulation and venous thrombosis
Sitting still for long periods in the inevitably cramped positions in aircraft frequently leads to swollen ankles and sometimes muscle cramps. Venous thrombosis in the legs and occasionally pulmonary emboli can occur but this is not unique to air travel and can occur whenever people are immobile for prolonged periods.

Preventive measures should include general advice to all passengers. Regular stretching and mobility exercises should be encouraged and walking around the cabin if practical.

Those with risk factors (especially if 3 or more are present) such as those over 60 years of age, previous deep vein thrombosis, recent surgery or injury, pregnancy or those less than 2 months post-partum, malignancy, cardio-respiratory disease, other chronic illnesses, oestrogen medication (contraceptive and hormone replacement), varicose veins and thrombophilia should discuss additional protective measures with their doctors. 

Advice for those thought to be a special risk may include the use of graded compression stockings, a small dose of aspirin for its anti-adhesive effect on blood platelets or a single injection of low molecular weight heparin, given shortly before departure and for the period of risk. Similar advice is appropriate for travellers by bus or train who spend many hours immobile in cramped conditions.

Respiratory tract infections
There is no convincing evidence that re-circulation of air in aircraft cabins increases the risk of transmitting infections since very effective filters are used to remove bacteria and viruses. However sitting in close proximity for long periods next to passengers who are suffering, for example, from common colds or influenza clearly may increase the chances of a passenger becoming infected. This is why airlines discourage passengers from travelling while unwell with infectious conditions.

The World Health Organization advises that, with tuberculosis increasing worldwide, there is a small but real risk of catching the disease during air flights. Transmission has only been recorded in flights lasting over eight hours. The risk is clearly greater when many of those on board are from countries with a high incidence of the disease.

Skin Parasite infections
Occasionally head lice and other skin parasites have been passed through contact with aircraft seats when a previous passenger has been infested. Itching and a papular rash, for example, around the neck and occiput can result.