Did you know there are many health risks of flying? Unknown to many, the health risks of flying can have an impact on your air travel health!
There are solutions to the best way you can minimize risk to your health, but there are also risks that carry no real solution.
Here’s perhaps the most comprehensive air passenger guide ever written about the subject, presented in plain language for easy understanding.
1. Cosmic Radiation
What is cosmic radiation?
Perhaps the most serious but least known threat among passengers to the long-term health risks of flying on our bodies is cosmic radiation.
Our bodies are literally being bombarded with exposure to harmful radiation when we fly. This radiation is called cosmic radiation. Cosmic rays can be further divided into two kinds of radiation:
- Galactic cosmic rays (GCR), emitting from space, originating outside our solar system, and
- Solar energetic particles (protons). Solar energetic particles peak during solar particle events, which occurs from one to 20 times a day.
The higher up we are in the atmosphere the heavier the dose of radiation exposure. Pilots get the most exposure, because of the cockpit windows. Flight attendants and passengers get half the exposure that pilots receive.
How much radiation are we exposed to during air travel?
Studies have been conducted on the harmful effects of in-flight radiation for years. But the impact or health risks of such flying on our bodies still aren’t fully understood.
For instance, a daytime, sunlight flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu in the summer would emit the equivalent radiation exposure of one chest x-ray in each one of your pilots. You as a passenger would receive a dosage half of that.
Do a flight from New York to Hong Kong flying over the north pole, and that one leg would expose each passenger to a radiation dose equal to 6 chest x-rays. Pilots would receive the equivalent dose of 12 chest x-rays on that leg.
The reason for the increased radiation effect flying over the North Pole is due to the hole in the protective ozone layer in that location.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classifies airline pilots and flight attendants as radiation workers. Pilots and flight attendants also have the highest yearly dose of radiation among all workers exposed to radiation in the U.S. This according to the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, a U.S. organization.
If you are a frequent flyer passenger, you can consider yourself belonging to the radiation-exposed society of crewmembers as well!
Long-term Cosmic Radiation Health Effects
The long-term health effects from cosmic radiation are unknown. Research has suggested increased possibilities of cancer, as well as birth defects and other damaging organic changes in our bodies. A conclusion or a solution to the phenomena does not appear in sight. NASA is putting a lot of research into protective shielding from cosmic radiation. But so far no cigar.
There is no way to prevent this exposure unless the airplanes are covered in a thick lead protection with no windows. Of course, that is not a realistic solution.
Researching articles on the subject they appear to conclude that pilots (and astronauts) are at a higher chance of getting different kinds of cancer than the rest of the population. Pilots also have a shorter life expectancy than other professional groups. Some research suggests that cosmic radiation may be one contributor to this.
Decades of continuous jet lag, stress, sleep deprivation, sedentary work sitting for hours on end and often unhealthy eating habits add to the contributing factors of pilots typically dying sooner than other professional groups.
Of course, if you only fly occasionally the risk of radiation exposure should not be any more than the risk you take when having x-rays taken at your doctor’s office. Even on the ground, we are receiving cosmic radiation but to a much lesser, perhaps insignificant degree.
Hypoxia is oxygen deprivation or deficiency in the blood, tissues, and cells to the point where the deficiency causes impairment of body functions. This is described as being in a hypoxic state. The type of hypoxia encountered in an airplane at high altitude is called hypoxic hypoxia. This as a result of oxygen flow interruption to the lungs.
The signs of being in a hypoxic state are many: Rapid breathing, blueing of the skin, lethargy, poor coordination, and exercising poor judgment. Symptoms include euphoria, nausea, fatigue, air hunger, dizziness, headache, hot and cold flashes, tingling and visual impairment.
Inflight hypoxia is treated using onboard portable oxygen bottles or breathing into the oxygen masks if they come down from your overhead compartment.
Here are the hypoxia conditions you should be aware of as an air traveler
Individually experienced hypoxia, where you, as an individual needs more oxygen for any reason. Remember, the air you breathe in the cabin is equivalent to the air you find at high altitudes on earth. You may feel deprived of oxygen, or perhaps for medical reasons, need more oxygen. Always ask the flight attendant for the oxygen bottle. Any qualified medical personnel on board will be requested to assist in helping you.
Alcohol inflight self-imposed health risk of flying can also induce hypoxia (called Histotoxic Hypoxia). The “thin” cabin air only increases your chances for such hypoxia if you drink excessively while you travel by air.
Airplane pressurization problem or malfunction: Hypoxia may affect everybody in the airplane if cabin pressure cannot be maintained. This as a result of a mechanical fault or a very fast decompression.
A very fast decompression is an extremely rare event, but it has happened. A big enough hole anywhere along the pressurized portion of the airplane (airplane body, door or window) could result in the cabin depressurizing immediately. Oxygen masks will drop for your use.
A very fast decompression is also likely to fog up the cabin, because of the sudden temperature change when outside air enters. The temperature inside the cabin may become very cold with outside air entering too. Depending on the length of the decompression event hypothermia may become a factor.
Passenger Oxygen masks, how do they work?
If the passenger oxygen masks should drop from the overhead compartment, make sure you don your mask immediately! If a child or another adult needs help with their mask put your own oxygen mask on first.
Always pay close attention to the Flight Attendant briefing prior to every flight on how to use your oxygen mask!
Passenger oxygen masks get their oxygen from individual generating canisters, producing oxygen from a chemical process. These canisters provide about 12 minutes of oxygen until empty. That gives your pilots time to descend the airplane to a safe altitude where supplemental oxygen is no longer required.
CAUTION! Do not reach up to the panel your mask dropped from. The oxygen canister may reach a temperature of 500 degrees, and you may get burned!
Pilot oxygen masks
Pilots, by the way, get their oxygen from separate oxygen bottles (not generating canisters), located by the cockpit.
Decompression chamber hypoxia exposure effects
In these training videos, you can see what effect hypoxia has on your brain and body. Here you can clearly see the health risks you’d endure if you don’t don your oxygen mask should it come down.
Why don your oxygen mask IMMEDIATELY?
The graph below illustrates how important it is to don your oxygen mask immediately, should the mask deploy.
Since every person has a slight difference in the way hypoxia affects them the following graph represents average figures. Other variables include how fast the airplane climbs, physical activity, the fatigue of the person, poor nutrition, alcohol, and medications effect:
•ALTITUDE represents airplane physical altitude, not cabin altitude.
•TUC/EPT means Time of Useful Consciousness: As we get deprived of sufficient oxygen, our mind starts deteriorating and performing poorer, to the point where we finally become unconscious.
For example: Should the masks deploy at 35,000 feet, as a result of rapid decompression/loss of cabin pressurization you would only have between 30 to 60 seconds before you lose consciousness if you don’t put your oxygen mask on.
By the way, a complete absence of oxygen will cause death in approximately five to eight minutes!
3. Altitude Induced Decompression Sickness
Donning your oxygen mask if it comes down should ensure sufficient oxygen to prevent hypoxia. An additional, not much talked about danger if you experience a very quick decompression is decompression sickness.
Decompression sickness, or “the bends”, is a dangerous condition. The bends happen when the nitrogen in our bodies form into gaseous bubbles affecting our body fluids and tissues. This after exposing our bodies to a rapid pressurization change.
Symptoms of the bends are many but include body pain, visual disturbances, and headache. Left untreated the bends can be life-threatening. The bends are treated by doctors in a hyperbaric oxygen recompression chamber.
Please know that there is a big difference between a rapid (or explosive) decompression and a situation where an airplane is slowly and gradually losing pressurization. Altitude induced decompression sickness is not likely to happen unless you experienced a very fast loss of cabin pressure.
If you ever experience a very fast decompression event make sure you get a medical evaluation as soon as you get back on the ground. Your body just took a “beating”, so stay on the safe side by getting yourself checked by a qualified medical professional. Don’t take a chance on ignoring this potential health risk of the flying after-effect of such a flight.
4. Ear Pain, Sinus, Tooth, or G.I. Tract pain
On the ground, the pressure in your body is equal to the outside air. In the airplane, when you climb or descend the cabin pressure changes, sometimes making your ears “pop”. Trapped gas causes this to happen.
After the pressure inside of your ears equalize with the cabin pressure your ears feel normal again. Sinus cavities, teeth canals, the gastrointestinal tract, and the lungs are also affected by cabin pressurization.
If you fly with sinus or upper respiratory infection problems, such as while having clogged up ears from a cold, the sharp pain can be very bad!
By the way, the pressure differential in the cabin may reach havoc in your baby’s ears. Many of us have experienced that sharp extremely painful feeling in our ears, especially if we fly with sinus problems, such as a cold.
Dr. Robert Heebner, M.D., a former Los Angeles based Federal Aviation Administration Flight Surgeon’s Senior Airman Medical Examiner (AME) explained it this way:
“You may think twice before you let your baby on a flight before the age of two. Children, especially under two years of age, are prone to crying during takeoffs and landings. Since their air canals are smaller, their ears are more susceptible to feeling pressure changes than adult ears. Because landings generally produce a more rapid change in pressurization than takeoffs, landings are usually worse for the child”.
Furthermore, here is what Dr. Heebner said:
Practical solutions to an ear or sinus block, abdominal air pressure pain, or tooth air pressure pain
Ear or Sinus block:
•Try the Valsalva maneuver, swallow, yawn or chew, to try to equalize the pressure and clear the block.
Here are further solutions, which were typically taught to pilots by flight surgeons. Nowadays pilots can no longer resort to the following, however.
The ingredients in these over the counter meds are not compatible with the on the job random drug testing pilots and flight attendants are subject to.
Ask your doctor before you take any medication:
•Sudafed: Usually helps, especially if taken half an hour before starting the descent for landing.
•Afrin: If you truly experience a bad ear block, especially on the descent for landing one single dose of Afrin typically clears the ear block immediately.
This method was referred to by pilots as “Emergency Afrin” because it truly is a great immediate solution to clear an acute ear blockage for most.
G.I Tract trapped air pain:
•Try to pass the gas.
Tooth trapped air pain (extremely rare, but most likely from i.e. root canal work):
•See a dentist.
The bottom line: Save yourself from the pain. Try to avoid flying altogether if you have a cold or sinus blockage.
The combination of dry air and a high cabin altitude both contribute to dehydration. Dehydration means that the amount of liquid we lose is greater than what we take in.
Symptoms of dehydration can be from mild to serious.
They include dryness of sinuses, throat, and nose, headache, reduced urination, and thirst. More severe symptoms include low blood pressure, fever and fast heart rate.
The solution to dehydration when flying is very simple: drink plenty of water before and during your flight. Caffeine and alcohol have diuretic properties, which can lead to further dehydration.
Swelling of the foot and leg during air travel is common. It is typically harmless unless you suffer from certain medical conditions. The inactivity of flight, sitting in a chair for hours causes blood to build up in the veins of your leg. The pressure in your leg veins is also increased because of the position of your legs.
To minimize swelling and keep your blood flowing you can do some simple exercises while sitting in your seat. You should flex your ankles and extend your feet repeatedly once every hour.
When you get up to use the restroom to take advantage of being on your feet by doing some additional exercises, such as stretching your whole body.
Wearing comfortable, not tight-fitting shoes is also a plus in a pressurized cabin, in anticipation of the expected feet swelling.
Bloating as a result of sitting in a pressurized airplane cabin is known as “jet bloat”. The change in air pressure causes gas inside your body to expand.
Especially noticeable to most is bloating of the stomach. To minimize bloating stay clear of gas-producing foods prior to and during your flight. Beans, broccoli, and carbonated drinks are examples of consumables to avoid.
Swelling and bloating should both dissipate after your flight.
8. Blood clots / Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
The potential true danger of sitting for hours in a pressurized cabin is blood clots, called deep vein thrombosis. Often occurring in the thigh or lower leg area, a clot can block the blood flow in the affected area. The blockage can cause swelling. Worse yet, if the blood clot dislodges and travels to your lungs or other organs it can be fatal!
Get up from your seat, go to the restroom and move around periodically to help prevent blood clots. Compression socks are socks designed to improve blood flow and to help prevent serious medical conditions.
Always check with your doctor before flying. He or she may even prescribe a blood thinner to prevent clotting if you suffer from bad circulation.
9. Cabin Air, catching an airborne illness
There is a lot of misinformation out there on where it’s best to sit on an airplane to minimize the chances of catching a bug from fellow passengers.
There is no such thing as a “safer” seat to avoid catching an airborne bug. If you sit close to a sick person with a nagging cough, however, simply ask to change seat away from that person.
Air is diffused all over the cabin from different locations. Air distribution also varies by airplane type. Varieties include overhead air distribution along the cabin ceiling, individual overhead outlets, sidewall risers, and other air outlet locations.
You are inside a pressurized cylinder where the air is constantly being recycled throughout the entire cabin for a few minutes. Then the air leaves the airplane through the air outflow valves in the belly area of the airplane. More fresh air is being produced and the entry-exit cycle continues nonstop during your flight.
Recirculation of cabin air
The reason why air is being recirculated with the help of airplane recirculation fans:
It helps save fuel consumption and money, by decreasing bleed air demand from the engines. This, in turn, reduces fuel consumption.
The recirculation fans are associated with air filters, which clean the “used” stale air for redistribution into the cabin. After being recirculated through the cabin for a few minutes, the stale air is dumped overboard to allow fresh air to enter the cabin.
Airlines adhere to strict maintenance procedures for the proper timing of changing of these air filters. However, two scenarios can still possibly make you sick:
The following airborne infection possibilities are very remote. But, for the sake of information, here it is:
1. Dirty bug infested filters not being changed, as required by aviation authorities worldwide, or
2. Bug infested airborne particles being reintroduced into the cabin, even from new and changed filters.
When you fly across different time zones your internal body clock is still stuck in your home time zone. Your body reacts to that by feeling fatigued and “sluggish”. This is called jetlag. Your body literally lags in catching up to the local destination time. The more time zones you cross the stronger the adverse jetlag effect on your body will be.
The time required for the recovery of jetlag is also determined upon how many time zones you crossed.
The long-term health risks of flying from jetlag are still poorly understood. It is interesting to note, however, that long-distance pilots tend to die fairly early after retirement.
A lot of studies have been conducted on how to best counteract jetlag and recover from jetlag. The bottom line is, what works for some does not work for others. To understand this subject in better depth and the methods to use for recovery, jetlag has been discussed in detail in my article HERE.
Being in a state of hyperventilation means breathing at a rate faster than normal. In a healthy adult, a normal breathing rate considered to be from 12 to 16 breaths every minute.
Carbon dioxide gas controls our breathing rate. Self-imposed anxiety and fear can result in hyperventilation.
When faced with anxiety and fear our breathing rate is controlled emotionally instead of chemically. As a result of our carbon dioxide levels (and the hydrogen ion levels of the blood) quickly dropping.
Self-imposed stress hyperventilation is most likely to affect the following categories of air passengers:
- Some first-time fliers.
- People with a fear of flying.
- Passengers reacting to event-triggered hyperventilation, such as during and after a decompression event or emergency situation.
- Fear of turbulence.
- Passengers feeling stressed about air travel in general.
Symptoms of hyperventilation, besides the increased breathing rate, may include dizziness, blurry vision, twitching muscles, and even muscle spasm.
How to treat hyperventilation
Make a conscious effort to slow your rate and depth of breathing. Remember, fear and anxiety-induced fast breathing is an emotional trigger. If available, breathe into a paper bag to restore some carbon dioxide diminishing from your body with each exhale.
12. Fear of flying
Another issue affecting many passengers is the fear of flying. The fear of flying is very common, but there is help available for that. Simply do a google search for how to overcome the fear of flying. Find one clinic you like and attend their program.
I am sure you have heard this before, but you are many more times likely to get hurt driving to work than you are getting hurt in an airplane. The fear of flying is simply irrational.
Thus, fear of flying is considered a state of “mental health risk of flying”, as opposed to a physical health risk.
13. Existing medical conditions
Be safe, see a doctor before flying if you have a medical condition
There are numerous pre-existing medical conditions that can affect your health negatively if you go flying as a passenger. The rather different environmental conditions found in that pressurized tube we call an airplane may worsen your pre-existing condition.
It is always recommended you pre-check with your doctor to find out if flying as a passenger can worsen your already existing medical condition.
You can click HERE for a comprehensive guide if you want to learn more about this subject. This is a guide called Medical Guidelines for Airline Travel, issued by the U.S. Aerospace Medical Association Medical Guidelines Task Force.
Health Risks of Flying: How onboard medical issues are handled
Every airliner has basic medical equipment on board, which can be used by any medically qualified professional on board, such as an EMT, MD or a registered nurse.
Your flight attendants are also trained in first aid and the proper use of oxygen bottles. The pilots can contact a designated emergency medicine physician from anywhere in the world, who in turn can give proper medical instructions on any treatment necessary, until safely on the ground.
A medical emergency on an airplane is always a coordinated effort between the patient, any medical personnel on board, the flight attendants, the pilots, the airline company headquarters, and the emergency doctor on call for your flight.
Content source credits:
• U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Flight Surgeon • The United States Air Force Flight Surgeon • The United States Navy Flight Surgeon • NASA • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) • Boeing Corporation • Dr. Robert Heebner, M.D., Former Senior Airman Medical Examiner.
The author (Captain Les) • is not a medical professional, nor is he qualified to give medical advice to anyone. Thus, the health risks of flying matters discussed in this article are not intended as medical advice, just sharing common pilot knowledge about medical matters a pilot may be exposed to. Consult a qualified medical professional for any medical advice you may need. • is a licensed and qualified airline captain and flight instructor with a vast amount of education, knowledge, and experience of all matters relating to his professional qualifications to flying jets as a pilot. This knowledge includes the USAF, USN, and the FAA required the pilot’s required knowledge of aviation medicine. • is not responsible for any errors, misinformation or omissions in this article.