We are privileged to live in a time when crossing the world is as easy as hopping on an airplane! What isn’t as easy is figuring out how to stay healthy while flying. With the tight quarters and recycled air, odds are high… you’ll be taking home a souvenir you could have done without.
One of our goals as a family is to travel as much as possible and I personally travel quite a bit more than I used to, so I have accumulated some ways to stay healthy during travel. With these adjustments I seem to have an easier time keeping sickness away even when in close quarters with a lot of people on an airplane.
How to Stay Healthy While Flying
There are some surprising ways our health is compromised while flying (it’s not just about avoiding germs!), but there are some simple solutions too.
Flight attendants and passengers have been complaining about aerotoxic syndrome for years with little acknowledgment from airlines. Essentially, the theory is that the air from engines (contaminated with heated engine oil fumes) enters the cabin and makes some people very sick. There have been numerous accounts of flight attendants getting very ill (and showing improvement while away from the job).
Symptoms of aerotoxic syndrome include:
- vision problems
- breathing problems
- muscle aches
- increased tiredness
- lack of concentration
- inability to focus
While airlines have denied the reality of aerotoxic syndrome for years (though there have been numerous lawsuits), in 2017 British airline EasyJet announced the addition of specially designed filters to its aircrafts to stop toxic fumes from entering the passenger area. Some believe this is a clear admission that air quality on airplanes need to be better filtered.
Luckily there are some things you can do to lessen any aerotoxic exposure:
Tip: Get as much fresh air as possible after your flight. Instead of heading straight to the hotel, go for a walk outside.
While complimentary meals in the air are a thing of the past, many airlines still offer meals and snacks for a price. But the quality of food is notoriously bad. It’s heavy on additives and preservatives and light on taste. Luckily, airlines in the US (and many other places) allow you to take food on the plane, as long as you follow some rules. Here are some ideas:
- Sandwiches, lettuce wraps, or salads
- Dips, dressings, etc., only in containers 3.4 oz or smaller
- Fresh vegetables and fruits (technically you can bring a butter knife, but I’d just cut them ahead of time)
- Dried fruit and nuts
- Granola bars or energy bites
- Meat sticks and jerky (I like these)
- Kale chips
- Seaweed snacks
Tip: You can also bring a bit of ginger in an empty Thermos (and fill with hot water at an airport vendor) for motion sickness.
Pathogens on Airplanes
It probably goes without saying that airplanes are full of pathogens. Flight crews only have a few minutes between flights and focus on picking up large trash and noticeable spills rather than doing a thorough cleaning. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t regulate or inspect cleaning either. Blankets and pillows are folded up and put away for the next passenger. Bathrooms aren’t fully cleaned between flights. Tray tables are thought to be the dirtiest place (many families use them for diaper changes!).
Also, when there’s a sick passenger onboard the people surrounding him are in danger of contracting germs. One study found that the window seat was the best place to sit because you have the least contact with other people.
If you can’t pick your seat or if you’re flying as a family and someone must be on the aisle, here are some things you can do to stay healthy:
- Prep your (and your family’s) immune system beforehand by getting enough sleep, healthy food, exercise, vitamin D, and water.
- Use your Thermos and hot water from an airport vendor to make an immune-boosting hot tea like echinacea.
- Bring natural hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes to clean your area.
- Bring your own neck pillow and a jacket to wear if you get cold.
- Wash your hands often.
Additionally, you may want to consider fasting on the trip. It’s thought that fasting (at least on shorter trips) may help avoid illness by not making the body focus on digestion (and may help with jet-lag too).
Avoid Water Onboard
I mentioned earlier that you should get water from an airport vendor before boarding the plane. The reason is that the water is not necessarily safe.
A random sampling of aircrafts in 2004 found E.coli in the water. Since then the EPA set the Aircraft Drinking Water Rule with more stringent disinfection and inspection regulations.
However, a sampling in 2013 showed water contamination was still a problem.
Bottom line: Stay away from tap water on a plane and drink bottled water or water you get from the airport instead.
This one is controversial, but airport scanners use backscatter technology, which projects an X-ray beam onto your body. This ionizing radiation is a known cumulative health hazard that may cause cancer or other DNA damage. Many studies have found that X-rays and other ionizing radiation are one cause of human cancer.
Flying also brings us closer to the sun (one of the biggest sources of radiation) where the atmosphere is less protective, so it makes radiation levels on the body higher.
What to do:
- Load up on antioxidants – Antioxidants can counteract the effects of radiation. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of antioxidants. When you’re traveling though, propolis spray is a convenient way to get additional antioxidants.
- Take a detox bath when you reach your destination – A sea salt and baking soda bath is thought to be helpful in reducing the effects of radiation on the body. I use this recipe.
- Fly at night (or outside the 9-5 timeframe) – Since the sun is a major source of radiation, choosing flights when the sun is lower or away can help reduce the radiation exposure.
- Skip the scanner – Request a pat-down instead (arrive at the airport early if choosing this option). (Flying with a baby also exempts you from passing through the scanner.)
Additionally, eating a healthy diet and living a healthy lifestyle will also help protect and heal the body.
The Bottom Line on Staying Healthy While Flying
The health issues associated with flying can seem all-encompassing, but there are some basic healthy living tactics that can help avoid most of them:
- Use good hygiene (wash hands and anything around you!).
- Eat a healthy diet (with lots of antioxidants) and lifestyle.
- Detox after the flight,
- Don’t drink the onboard water (but stay hydrated).
- Bring healthy snacks on the airplane.
- Get adequate sleep before the flight.
If you stick with these guidelines, you’ll be much more likely to enjoy the perks of travel in good health!
What do you do to stay healthy while flying?
- Aerotoxic Syndrome – The Poisoning of Airline Pilots, Cabin Crew and Passengers that is possible in any air flight. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://aerotoxic.org/pdfs/Aerotoxic_Syndrome_Dr_Sarah_Myhill.pdf
- Doucleff, M. (2018, March 19). Pathogens On A Plane: How To Stay Healthy In Flight. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/03/19/594916453/pathogens-on-a-plane-how-to-stay-healthy-in-flight
- Hendricks, S., Kirn, W., Graeber, D., Hurston, Z. N., Bacevich, A. J., Jayamaha, B., Hersh, S. M. (n.d.). Get access to 167 years ofHarper’s for only $45.99. Retrieved from https://harpers.org/blog/2012/03/the-empty-stomach-fasting-to-beat-jet-lag/
- Wright, D. (2010, December 22). 6 places germs breed in a plane. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2010/TRAVEL/12/22/bt.germs.breed.on.plane/index.html
- Friedman, S. (2013, October 29). EPA Tests Show Little Improvement in Airplane Water Quality. Retrieved from https://www.nbcdfw.com/investigations/EPA-Tests-Show-High-Percentage-of-Airplanes-Still-Have-Bacteria-in-Water-Served-On-Board-226813491.html
- Handschuh, H., Dwyer, J. O., & Adley, C. C. (2015, November). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4661625/
- Mercola, D. J. (2017, December 07). Radiation Is Not The Only Health-Hazard Of Full-Body Scanners. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mercola/airport-scanners-how-much-radiation-_b_793071.html
- Okunieff, P., Swarts, S., Keng, P., Sun, W., Wang, W., Kim, J., Zhang, L. (2008). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2800038/
- Clearing Radiation: A Detoxification Bath from Dr. Hazel Parcells. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://drkaayladaniel.com/a-detoxification-bath-from-dr-hazel-parcells/