What Really Happens to Your Body When You Get on a Plane

TimeOdd Stories - Body

Squashed into small seats, being unable to sleep comfortably and eating a tasteless meal are a few things we all dread when we fly. But our body can react to being in the air in some ways we don’t even realize. Even buying a first-class ticket won’t help.

Here are a few of the clever responses your body makes when you fly. Get to know them well so you can help manage your mid-air self on your next adventure away.

1. We blow up like a balloon.

The higher the altitude, the more the cabin pressure will drop. We are made up of a lot of gas inside our body, which counteracts this drop in pressure. Particularly in our digestive system and intestines, this pressure drop causes our bodily gas to expand. As a result, we can feel cramping sensations, bloating, and maybe even some constipation. So if you have to get rid of some gas, let it out – although make sure you take yourself away from the person next to you first!

The gas fluctuations can also affect your sinuses and ears too, not allowing air to pass through quickly enough to equalize. Yawning will often help to solve this problem.

2. Our aches and pains can get worse.

It isn’t just the digestive system that responds to the air pressure change; fluid and gases within our circulatory system and joints can thicken, causing added pressure within the joints themselves.

For some individuals who suffer from inflammatory joint pain like arthritis, don’t be surprised if symptoms are worse following a long haul flight. It may also be that these joints that are a bit vulnerable, or even ones that have previously been grumpy, take a little longer for to settle down after, including swelling- don’t worry, it is just a clever protective mechanism the nerves and joint have going on.

3. We’re more susceptible to colds.

About half of the cabin air is re-circulated, meaning your immune system is continually exposed to any germs lurking around the plane. It is said that for this reason,you are a hundred times more likely to catch a cold when you are flying. So best to boost your immune system by eating healthily and taking regular exercise before you take to the air. Wash your hands regularly (or use a hand sanitizer) when you’re on board.

4. It makes us more thirsty … and tired.

Your body can lose up to 1.5 liters of water during a three-hour flight. Humidity can be as low as 4%, and with the re-circulated air, moisture in your skin can be sucked away pretty quickly. It can also dry up your mucus secreting glands in the mouth, nose and throat to give you that feeling of dryness and breath that isn’t as fresh as when you left.

And we all know what happens when we feel dehydrated– we can get tired, lose mental focus and can get muscle aches. Feeling tired can also be caused by the lower oxygen levels available at higher altitudes- similar to when you go skiing or mountain hiking. Cabins are pressurized to 75% of normal atmospheric pressure. Lower oxygen in the blood (called “hypoxia”) can leave us feeling dizzy, headachy, nauseous and fatigued.

Try to avoid alcohol when in the air as it won’t help with your hydration. Making sure you drink plenty of water is key during the flight and you can even apply a good moisturizer to the skin at regular intervals too.

5. We get stiffer than usual.

Being sedentary for a longer period of time causes our muscles and joints to stiffen up. It also is a reason why we get swollen ankles and legs as it leads to blood pools, and in more serious cases, blood clotting- no wonder we see people wearing those fashionable white stockings.

Keeping yourself active during a flight is therefore essential to help circulation. Flexing the ankles, moving the legs around regularly and even doing some stretching or ‘plane-yoga’ at the back of the cabin every hour is a good way to get the blood moving and can help with boosting oxygen levels too.

6. We lose our sensations.

A 2010 study revealed that we could lose thirty percent of our ability to taste sweetness and saltiness at high altitude due to the evaporation of nasal mucus. This causes the essential nerve for taste and smell to be affected too. About a third of our taste buds can become numb while we fly- handy considering the food served is far from Michelin star. You might even find this to be the reason behind your strange craving for tomato juice when flying; the dry air makes it taste less salty than usual.

We can also temporarily lose our hearing due to the humidity and change in air pressure as we fly- a good excuse to switch off from the conversation for a few hours.

7. Our body clock gets confused.

Flying west to east, crossing two or more time zones throws the body clock off even more due to the increase in daylight hours. The brain likes to actually work on a 25-hour clock rather than the expected 24 hours, making it harder to get over jet lag when you are traveling to places like Australia and New Zealand. Getting yourself well prepared before you fly would be helpful, try to take afternoon naps and sleep a little later than usual.

8. We’re exposed to cosmic radiation.

During a seven hour flight, for example London to New York, you are exposed to the same radiation dose as an X-ray, so imagine the exposure traveling to Australia! As altitude increases, the cosmic radiation exposure also increases as the Earth’s atmosphere provides less protection.

But do not fear because the public dose limit is 1 mSv per year (applying to the unborn child too). To put this into perspective, this dose is equivalent to flying from London to Singapore to Melbourne 23 times. Aircrew who regularly fly 10-20 hours per week can exceed this dose quite easily. But if you’re the average Joe (like me) who takes a few vacations a year rather than being a pilot, a flight attendant, I wouldn’t let this be a reason to stop you boarding the plane.


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Written by TimeOdd

TimeOdd is a leading technology media property, dedicated to obsessively profiling startups, reviewing new Internet products, and breaking tech news.


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