Air Travel Woes
If your job calls for frequent air travel, you might have experienced a flight-related medical problem. Traveling by air can cause or worsen a variety of medical conditions. Air travel poses problems related to changes in air pressure, reduced oxygen, turbulence, dry air, immobility, disruptions of the body’s internal clock (jet lag), and psychological or physical distress.
The low level of air pressure inside airplanes causes air trapped in pockets within the body to expand by 25 percent. This can aggravate emphysema, blocked Eustachian (ear) tubes (such as occurs with colds or allergies), chronic sinusitis, and chronic gas pains. The problem can be severe when an airplane accidentally loses cabin pressure or when the cabin isn’t pressurized, as in some small airplanes. According to M. W., M.D., medical director of OccNet, “Swallowing frequently, yawning during descent and taking decongestants before the flight can help.” (OccNet is the occupational health service of the Health Alliance.) The relatively low air pressure can also be troublesome for people who have a severe lung disease (such as emphysema), heart failure, severe anemia, severe angina, sickle cell disease and certain congenital heart diseases. Problems can usually be handled with supplemental oxygen, which should be ordered ahead of time.
Turbulence can cause airsickness. “If you are prone to airsickness, you may benefit from dimenhydrinate taken as a tablet or a scopolamine skin patch,” says Dr. W.
Dehydration, resulting from the low humidity, can be prevented by drinking plenty of liquids and avoiding alcohol. If you wear contact lenses, you should apply rewetting solution to your contacts frequently to combat the dry air.
Sitting still for a long time increases the risk of developing blood clots in the legs. Pregnant women and people with poor circulation are at particular risk. Walking around the cabin every hour or two and contracting and relaxing the leg muscles while sitting help keep the blood flowing.
Gradually shifting your eating and sleeping patterns before departure can sometimes prevent jet lag, the uncomfortable result of traveling across time zones. If you do this, remember to also shift your medication schedule accordingly. Melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, may also help with sleep disturbances, but these claims have not been rigorously studied. A half-dose of a mild sleeping pill may help you adjust to your new time zone once you’ve arrived.
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