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10 techniques for staying healthy while flying

Nobody wants to pay hundreds of dollars for a plane ticket only to get sick from their flight.

Scott Gamm
by Scott Gamm, MainStreet contributor (@ScottGamm)

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — It’s a familiar scenario for many travelers: You're on a plane, it's a five-hour flight and the person sitting next to you is sneezing every few minutes. A few days later, you come down with a cold or something even more serious, such as the flu. You paid hundreds of dollars for the flight, but now you are sick, you missed work and it just doesn’t seem fair.

Fortunately, you don’t have to simply accept illness as an unfortunate consequence of flying — there are things you can do to help increase your chances of staying healthy:

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Beware the sneezing passenger. When you're walking down the street and someone sneezes, you have some space to walk away or turn the next corner to avoid getting close to the sneeze. But when you're on a plane and the passenger next to you sneezes, there's nowhere else to go. And being next to a sneezer could potentially get you sick. What can you do?

According to Dr. Susan J. Rehm, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, you should simply consider telling the person: “I can see you’re not feeling well ... would you mind covering your mouth when you cough? Thanks.”

"Most people, when prompted, are eager to show good manners and do the right thing," she says.

Keep your hands to yourself. Your kindergarten teacher probably taught you to keep your hands to yourself, but the same rule applies to preventing the spread of germs.

"Avoid touching your face and even refrain from shaking hands," Rehm advises.

Of course, if you run into an old friend on the plane, you may feel it’s rude if they stick out their hand for a handshake and you ignore that for fear of getting sick. To compromise, Rehm suggests washing your hands frequently and using hand sanitizer.

Pack cough drops. Picture this: The night before your flight and as even as you board you feel fine. But midflight you start to feel lousy and your throat hurts. When this happens, normally you’ll take a cough drop … but do you always bring them with you when you travel?

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According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, cough drops that contain menthol and mild anesthetics, such as benzocaine, hexylresorcinol, phenol and dyclonine, can help soothe a mild sore throat and keep coughing to a minimum. It’s a good idea to pack cough drops in your carry-on bag just in case an unexpected sore throat creeps up on you.

Stay stress free. There’s no doubt traveling is stressful; after all, you have to worry about getting to the airport on time, dealing with delayed or canceled flights, carrying luggage and paying extra fees if you check your bags. But stress can be harmful to your health, so it's important to find ways to reduce that stress when traveling.

Kathy Gruver, who holds a Ph.D. in natural health and is the author of "The Alternative Medicine Cabinet," suggests doing deep-breathing exercises and mini meditations to stay relaxed on your flight. How do you do this on a plane?

“Close your eyes and concentrate on your breath, the rise and fall of your chest or the feeling of the air going in and out of your nostrils,” Gruver explains. “On the inhale think ‘I am’ and on the exhale think ‘at peace’ and do that for each subsequent in and exhale.”

Gruver says this technique will calm the nervous system, lower your heart rate and blood pressure, increase brain function and strengthen the immune system.

Get some sleep. Physician Richard Kelley knows that having a strong immune system is crucial to keeping you well, and he says that one of the best ways to build up immunity is to get adequate sleep.

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“Try to get as much sleep as possible before, during and after your trip,” he says. “The more fatigued and worn down you are, the less effective your immunity may be, and it could be more difficult to fight off even the puniest bug.”

And air travel is often synonymous with waking up early to get to an airport with enough time to check bags, get through security and board safely.

Try other ways to boost immunity. According to "The Truth About Your Immune System," a special health report from Harvard Health Publications, “Following general good-health guidelines is the single best step you can take toward keeping your immune system strong and healthy.”

Some of those healthy-living strategies include eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in saturated fat, exercising regularly and drinking alcohol in moderation.

Immune supplements are often touted as a way to boost immunity, though the jury is out on their actual effectiveness. If you're interested in trying them out to help keep you healthy on your flight, Jean-Jacques Dugoua, a naturopathic doctor and clinical researcher, suggests taking combinations of zinc, Echinacea, astragalus, ginseng, goldenseal and elderberry.

Drink water. Staying hydrated is another key to staying well, but what's the best way to do it while on the go? Dr. Keri Peterson, a contributor to "Women’s Health" magazine, suggests drinking plenty of water while flying and even using a saline spray to ensure your nasal passage remains moist, preventing infections.

Minimize jet lag. Flying internationally on an eight- to 12-hour flight can wreak havoc on your body's circadian rhythms. Dr. Robert Wheeler, medical director with On Call International, which provides travelers with emergency protection and services when they are away from home, offers the following ways to minimize the effects of jet lag before, during and after the flight:

  • Before the flight, adjust your sleep/wake period and meals an hour or two earlier or later, depending upon the destination’s time zone.
  • During the flight, you should remain well-hydrated, eat high-protein (rather than high-carbohydrate) meals and change your watch time to the time at your intended destination.
  • Upon arrival, adjust your sleep/wake cycle to that of the local population. If arriving in the morning hours after a night flight, exposure to natural sunlight will help you adjust to a time change.

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Prevent blood clots. Wheeler also warns about deep venous thrombosis, the formation of blood clots in a vein deep inside a part of the body (usually the legs) that can be caused by restricted movement and is especially a concern on flights longer than four hours.

“To decrease the risk of DVT, travelers should remain well hydrated and wear loose-fitting clothing. Exercise of the feet and legs every hour while seated/standing or a short walk down the aisle is very important,” Wheeler says. As for travelers who have a history of blood clots or have had recent surgery, “Consider the use of compression stockings and discuss with their physician the use of appropriate blood thinner medication, especially for long flights.”

Dr. Michael P. Zimring, author of "Healthy Travel: Don't Travel Without It!," also says to avoid caffeinated drinks such as coffee and soda. “These drinks cause dehydration, which contributes to clots,” he says.