By and large, travel is good for us.
Going to new places teaches us about other cultures, helps improve our relationships by providing bonding away from the stresses of home, gives us a break from work so we return with lower anxiety and higher productivity…in fact, travel and has even been linked to lower heart disease. (Ref. 1)
But behind every benefit – relaxing on the beach in Bora Bora, perhaps – are a host of little issues just waiting to zap our health and erase all the good feelings that came from that relaxing vacation.
Flying the not-so-friendly skies
Hoping on a plane from New York City to Zurich?
During the eight-hour flight, you’re likely to come into contact with some seriously nasty stuff. (And we’re not talking the bathroom, either.)
According to a recent study, the dirtiest place on the plane is the one you’ll use the most – the tray table.
Testers from Travelmath.com found that the tray table – the very place you open up your cookies or peanuts - had 2,155 “colony forming units” per square inch, compared to 265 on the flush button in the cramped toilet, 285 on the air vent and 230 on the seat belt buckle. Colony-forming units refer to bacteria that are able to multiple, suggesting that given time and a lack of airplane cleaning staff, that horrific number will only grow. (Ref. 2)
Airport drinking fountains were the next dirtiest, suggesting that water fountains are not the way to stay hydrated while flying.
Dehydration is no joke
That’s not to say that you should not drink plenty of water. Just find a cleaner source.
While the indoor humidity of most places is 30 to 65 percent, in flight, humidity levels are just 10 to 20 percent, so staying hydrated is important in order to prevent dry skin, dry eyes or increase the risk of catching some airborne infection, which on a plane is just contained there, waiting to attack. Humidity keeps the mucus linings moist, so that they can capture any incoming germs. Allow them to dry out, however, and they can’t do their job. (Ref. 3)
“Dehydration can be avoided by drinking fluids throughout the flight,” Dr. William l. Sutker, chief of infectious diseases at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, told Everyday Health. But that means water – as much as a bottle for every hour of your flight – instead of coffee, sodas or alcohol, all of which can exacerbate dehydration.
In addition to drinking plenty of water, bring along a good moisturizer (such as Xtend-Life’s Age-Defying Day Cream for women and Age-Defying Facial Fluid for men) to prevent dry skin and saline solution to keep nasal passages moist.
If you’re feeling dragged out and exhausted after your flight, dehydration could be the problem, Sutker said.
Jet lag could leave you drained
That exhaustion could also be jet lag, especially if your flight takes you through numerous time zones.
As many as 3 million people in the United States experience jet lag each year, according to statistics.
The Mayo Clinic describes it as a disruption of our circadian rhythms, which guide our sleep-wake cycles and are synced to our own time zones. Traveling from one country to another – and landing the same day and time that you left thanks to time-zone jumping – can have serious consequences, especially over the long term. (Ref. 4)
A 2007 study that appeared in the journal The Lancet found that chronic disruption of circadian rhythms led to sleep disorders, cognitive decline, psychotic and mood disorders and an increased potential for serious health conditions, risks comparable to those working the night shift. (Ref. 5)
To combat the problem, try not to sleep on the plane unless you’re on a particularly long flight, and once you arrive, try to stay awake until your destination’s bedtime.
And according to the experts at the Mayo, use sunlight to help combat jet lag by planning your flight so your landing times allow you to take advantage of the sun’s ability to help reset your internal clock.
“Morning light exposure can usually help you adjust to an earlier time zone, while evening light helps you adapt to a later time zone,” the experts say. (Ref. 4)
Don't forget to move and stretch
Airplanes are getting smaller and smaller in order to cram more people per flight, so passengers are often left sitting in cramped, uncomfortable conditions for longer than is safe.
Sitting in a position without the ability to move your legs can cause a condition called deep vein thrombosis (aka economy class syndrome), because the immobility can cause blood clots in your legs that can travel to your lungs, leading to a pulmonary embolism.
While driving, experts recommend stopping every hour or so to stretch your legs and prevent the problem, but a plane allows for little movement.
For your health’s sake, however, forget how much it might bother your seatmate, and make sure to drink up those hourly bottles of water – and take those hourly restroom breaks.
Traveler's thrombosis has been around since the 1950s, and impacts about 1 percent of all travelers, according to a 2003 study from New Zealand.
Skip the bug, please
As if the exhaustion and disorientation of jet lag combined with worries over sudden death is not enough, it’s fairly likely that if you’re not in the best of health, the odds are high that you will pick up some kind of bug while traveling by air.
According to a 2004 study that appeared in the Journal of Environmental Health Research, the risk of catching a cold is more than 100 times higher on a plane than any other method of travel, meaning that you could land dehydrated, jet lagged and sneezing. Not a great way to start a vacation.
Again, drinking plenty of water – and using a disinfecting wipe on that filthy tray table – can help combat plane-borne illnesses, and get you to your destination happy and healthy.