How to beat the air travel blues

Posted on: 07 July 2010 by Mark O'haire

Air travel can play havoc with your health. So what steps do flight attendants take to avoid the pitfalls. asked Spencer Barnett, who works for BMI, for his top tips and advice on beating the air travel blues.

In-flight infection

Most people believe that travelling six miles above the earth's surface in a metal tube with hundreds of people puts you at risk of picking up a cough or cold. But the air itself is not the problem.

During the flight, outside sterile air is supplied to the cabin from the engines where it is heated, compressed, cooled and passed into the cabin via the ventilation system.

Around 50 per cent of this air is recirculated through high- efficiency filters which remove 99.97 per cent of dust, bacteria and fungi. Normal airline cabin air changes between 15 and 20 times an hour, compared with 12 times per hour in a typical office building.

"There is no evidence that the pressurised cabin makes the transmission of disease more likely," says Dr Ray Johnson, head of the Aviation Health Unit at the Civil Aviation Authority.

However, it is true that being in close proximity to people, as commuters will know only too well, will put you at risk of infections.

Ear problems

Our ears 'pop' when the eustachian tube - the passageway from the middle ear to the back of the throat - adjusts to changes in air pressure.

Children tend to be more acutely affected because of their relatively narrow eustachian tubes, which might not function as well, especially if they have a sinus infection or a cold.

Sometimes your ears don't pop - if it is prolonged and causing pain, an old trick for treating it is 'hot cups'. Ask the crew for a plastic cup for each ear - you also need two towels dampened with boiling water; put these in the cups. Then hold the cups over the ears for a couple of minutes. The heat generated by the towel causes a very small pressure vacuum that should unblock the ears and ease any pain.

You can also try Boots' Flight Earplugs, £4.49, designed to equalise air pressure in the ear and relieve discomfort. 

Air sickness

Motion sickness occurs when there is disagreement between what you see and the balance system of the inner ear. When you look out of the window you are clearly moving, but your inner ear detects that you are sitting still.

Do not look out the as this will only increase the sensation of movement. And sit in the centre of the plane - the lower end of the plane is a bit like a pendulum and the closer you are to the tail, the worse you will be affected.

Bringing your temperature down relieves nausea, so turn on the cool air vent and sip cold water regularly.

Joy-rides tablets, £2.49 for 12 pills, contain the active ingredient hyoscine hydrobromide, which acts on the brain to prevent messages of motion sickness reaching the stomach.

Jet lag

Travelling across time zones upsets the body's natural rhythms for eating and sleeping - and can affect hormonal patterns. The best way to acclimatise is to spend at least an hour in natural daylight as soon as possible after landing.

Sun exposure tells your body it is daytime and helps reset your body clock, which will otherwise be out of sync with your destination time.

An Italian study found that jet lag symptoms can be reduced by half when taking Pycnogenol (pine bark extract). The theory is that it reduces tiny swellings in the brain caused by long-haul flights (£11.95 for 60 tablets from

Dry eyes & skin

The humidity in an aircraft cabin is 20 per cent, compared to between 40 and 70 per cent in most air-conditioned buildings. This alone does not cause true dehydration, but symptoms are exacerbated by drinking tea, coffee and alcohol, which cause your body to pass more urine.

You will have heard it before, but drinking plenty of water will help - cabin crew are told to drink a glass of water every 20 minutes when working.

For dry eyes, try Lumecare Tear Gel - it has a gelling agent which clings to the eye surface and is not washed away as quickly as conventional drops so provides longer-lasting relief (£3.99 for 10g from


The effects of alcohol are intensified at higher altitudes because of the reduced air pressure which slows your body's ability to absorb oxygen. The knock-on effect is that more alcohol is absorbed into the blood- stream.

The lack of moisture in cabin air also causes you to absorb any fluids faster, making you even more prone to the dehydrating effects of alcohol.

If you must drink alcohol, sip plenty of water throughout the flight.

What are your travel tips?

How do you beat the air travel blues?

Let us know by leaving a comment in the box below or share your thoughts with 50connect readers in the forum.

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