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Surviving long haul travel


Travelling, particularly long haul travel is one of those things that can get more difficult as we get older. For a number of reasons, as we age long haul travel gets harder and our bodies can take longer to recover from long flights. It’s imperative for everyone (especially older travellers) to prepare appropriately and look after our health while flying to ensure you arrive at your destination happy, healthy and hydrated!


During the 2013-2014 financial year, 8.94 million Australians took to the skies to venture overseas. Due to our nation’s geographical location, many of these trips are considered long haul. While for the majority of the trip we’re just sitting down, watching movies and sleeping (what might seem relaxing if it weren’t such a small space), long haul flights are actually very taxing on our health and physically quite demanding.

Many of us are familiar with the scenario of getting off a flight to start a holiday with sunken dry eyes, feeling fatigued, headachy or short-tempered… knowing deep down that a cold is brewing (because that person in your cabin didn’t cease coughing and spluttering for the entire eight or so hours!)

Being aware of the health risks while flying and adequately preparing to deal with potential maladies will see you landing healthier and consequently happier the next time you step off the plane post flight.

When preparing for an overseas trip, one of Australia’s leading Travel Doctors, Dr Natalie Gray, highly recommends if you have pre-existing health issues or a weaker immune system, to make an appointment to see your doctor for a check-up pre-travel. If you are taking medication, make sure you have enough to last for your entire trip. It’s also very important to have appropriate travel health insurance.

Dr Gray has offered her best tips to manage your health while aboard a long haul flight.

Issue 1: Don’t dehydrate

The main cause of dehydration during long haul travel is cabin dryness. Comfortable humidity is 60-70 per cent, but aeroplane cabins range from just 12-21 per cent (this is the same as a desert!). Common symptoms of low cabin humidity are thirst, dry mouth and skin and sore eyes and nose. To minimise dehydration, try and drink 2–3 glasses of water plus a dose of oral rehydration solution (like Hydralyte) every five hours. Don’t stress about having to get up to go to the toilet all the time, as moving will help with circulation.

Dry, scratchy eyes are one of the most uncomfortable health issues to have on a flight; they disrupt sleep and can become extremely irritated. Using eye drops or an eye mist can provide immediate relief; hydrating and restoring the natural tear film. Eye mists are an easy option for those who don’t like drops and need to moisturise and refresh dry and tired eyes on the move. When offered an inflight drink, pass over the carbonated beverages and ask for water. This is important because carbonated beverages, such as Cola, can dehydrate the body further. Additionally, avoid excess alcohol consumption because this too will dry you out.

Hydrate with electrolytes the night before flying.

Issue 2: Under (cabin) pressure

Most commercial long haul flights travel at an altitude of 28,000 – 35,000 feet. Cabins are pressurised to a maximum of 8000 feet to allow travellers to breathe comfortably as planes cruise through thin air at high altitudes. During take-off and landing the cabin pressure can change relatively quickly and ear or sinus pain can occur when flying, especially if you are sick. This discomfort can be minimised by using a saline nasal decongestant (like FESS saline spray) thirty minutes prior to take off and landing. The use of mentholated sweets or gum promotes swallowing and helps equalise pressure in the air.

Issue 3: Jetlag

Jetlag is the term used to describe the uncomfortable aftermath of a long haul flight through several time zones, where your circadian rhythms (internal clock) become out of sync. While there is no single therapy for combating jetlag, there are a number of ways you can minimise the impact.

  • As soon as you board the flight, set your clock to the local time of your destination. Try to get some sleep on the flight, depending on what time it will be in your new locale. Stay hydrated.
  • Avoid excess alcohol and caffeine – it will worsen jetlag by contributing to dehydration and give your body stimulants that will throw out natural sleep patterns.
  • Make sure you walk around the cabin to keep the body moving; otherwise that heavy feeling will follow you off the plane.
  • When you land at your destination, do some light exercise like going for a casual stroll or a relaxing swim that will get the body moving again. If it’s day time get some exposure to sunlight.
  • Upon arrival, know your body has been put through a lot of stress and plan to spend the first few days relaxing to recover from the unpreventable effects of jetlag.

Issue 4: Stressed immune system

Pre travel time can be stressful with work deadlines to meet and plenty to organise before you take off. During long haul travel you also spend long periods of time in enclosed or confined spaces with lots of other people and odds are if you’re not sick at the start, sitting next to someone for more than six hours who is sick, could mean you are by the end of the flight.

  • To boost your immune system try taking a supplement that includes ingredients to help support your immune system. It would be helpful to start taking one tablet per day a week prior to travelling. This will allow ample time for your immune system to ready itself for the long haul.
  • The nose is the body’s first line of defence to shield against common respiratory infections. Tiny hairs combined with mucus prevent dust, pollen, bacteria and other pollutants from reaching the lungs. Using a saline spray (like FESS) every two hours during the flight helps keep this system in optimum condition.
  • It is extra important to continue everyday cleanliness routines such as hand washing in order to prevent the spread of illness.Antibacterial hand gels can come in extra handy here, and you can purchase them at the airport.

Long haul travel, despite all the joy our final destination brings us, does put our bodies under a lot of extra stress. So when booking your next big trip, don’t forget to consider your health. Being prepared and equipped with the knowledge and remedies to overcome basic health issues will help ensure a healthy and happy holiday.


“Many of us are familiar with the scenario of getting off a flight to start a holiday with sunken dry eyes, feeling fatigued, headachy or short-tempered…”


About Dr Gray

Dr-Natalie-GrayDr Natalie Gray is the National Medical Director of The Travel Doctor – TMVC, a network of travel medicine clinics that provide specialist medical advice to both leisure and corporate travellers.

Natalie is a public health physician and aid worker with expertise in the provision of clinical services in resource poor settings, communicable disease prevention and control programs, and tropical and travel medicine. She has worked around the Pacific, in South East Asia and Africa. In Australia she has worked for Oxfam Australia and the Burnet Institute’s Women’s and Children’s Health program.

Did you know?

A recent small study found that women’s skin surface hydration decreased rapidly during long distance flights. Skin capacitance decreased on the face and forearms, with most pronounced dehydration on the cheeks where it decreased by 37 per cent.

Sources

ABS (2014) Australian Bureau of Statistics 3401.0 – Overseas Arrivals and Departures, Australia, Financial Year Data Jun 2014 Released 07/08/2014

Long haul flight are typically made by a wide-body aircraft. The flight length usually requires over six and a half hours some ultra-long flights go for 14+ hours

Guéhenneux, S. Gardinier, S. Morizot, F. Le Fur1and, I. Tschachle, E. (2012) ‘Skin surface hydration decreases rapidly during long distance travel’ Skin Research Technology Vol. 18(2) Pp. 238-240