5 Health Risks of Frequent Air Travel (And Tips To Prevent Them)
Update: This article was originally written in 2018 and updated in 2020.
Every traveler knows how uncomfortable flying can be. You’re tired, dehydrated, and folded into a tiny seat for hours on end. But is there a risk that all the unpleasantness of air travel can actually harm your health?
Data suggests there is, especially if you fly long distances frequently. This is especially true in today’s global climate battling coronavirus. In addition to the ordinary ill effects of business travel, such as unhealthy eating and heightened anxiety, frequent flying itself presents health risks.
If your company is ramping its business travel back up, or if you and your employees traditionally travel often by air for work — keep in mind these 5 health hazards of frequent air travel. Each hazard also walks through tips for air travel that can help minimize the risk.
Air Travel Health Risks For Frequent Business Travelers
Viral infection is by far the most common health risk of flying is picking up illness from fellow travelers. This has never been more true than in 2020, with the global threat of coronavirus.
Your immune system is already somewhat compromised due to the fact that you’re sitting in a pressurized airplane cabin for hours. Factor in the 200 strangers with whom you are sharing recycled air and the close proximity, and the risk of germs spreading is obvious.
Air travel tips: Keep your distance from others wherever possible. Wash your hands as often as possible and try to avoid touching your face between washes. In addition, try to stay as healthy as possible on the ground. According to a study by American Express Global Business Travel, business travelers are likelier than the average employee to “reward themselves” with a trip to the hotel bar and junk food at the end of a long day of client meetings. Indulge wisely; health on the ground minimizes your risk of catching something nasty when you’re packed like a sardine in an aluminum tube.
Desynchronosis is more often seen as an annoyance than a health hazard. But if the body’s circadian rhythms are disrupted often—say, by repeated international travel—the impact can be severe. A 2007 study published in The Lancet linked repeated jet lag to cognitive decline, mood disorders, and even heart disease.
Air travel tip: Adjust to your new schedule before your flight and try to rest on the flight. If a sleep aid like melatonin or Ambien is your thing, we’ll leave that up to you.
Noise over 85 decibels (dB) starts to cause permanent hearing damage after a few hours. For comparison, that’s about what you’ll hear standing next to a loud, idling semi truck—and in the back of some commercial flights. (A conversation is about 60 dB and loud music is about 100 dB.) In-flight noise can be anywhere from 75 dB in the front to over 85 dB in the rear, where the engines are located. If you’re on a flight for more than four hours, this can certainly have an effect on your hearing—especially if you tend to turn your headphones way up to compensate for the noise.
Air travel tip: Try to sit closer to the front than the back and invest in some noise-cancelling headphones.
Woah! How’d we jump from jet lag and white noise to sci-fi? By going over the poles, that’s how. When airplanes are in flight, the interiors are exposed to higher levels of the same solar radiation that cause aurora borealis. The intensity of these aggressive space photons varies depending on the route of the flight, with the highest levels of exposure experienced on long flights that fly near the poles. For that reason, traveling from Washington, DC, to Beijing exposes travelers to more radiation than an X-ray.
Air travel tip: Limit the frequency with which you fly over the poles. If work requires you to frequently travel from the East Coast to Asia, for example, occasionally book flights that lay over on the West Coast. It may be inconvenient, but your exposure to radiation will markedly decrease.
One of the most serious risks of flying happens to be something that doesn’t necessarily require long-haul flights to manifest. “Traveler’s thrombosis,” in which blood clots form during long periods of cramped immobility, usually leads to the clots dissolving in the bloodstream without incident. But in a confluence of risk factors—which include a history of blood clots, pregnancy, and recent surgery—the clot can travel to the heart or lungs. The resulting embolism can be fatal.
Air travel tip: Wear comfortable clothing (and compression socks) and get up to walk around the cabin from time to time. Traveler’s thrombosis isn’t difficult to prevent in healthy people, but with an incidence of about 1 in 6,000, it’s worth taking precautions. And who doesn’t want an excuse to stretch their legs?