The question: My job forces me to travel frequently. What are the health risks of flying so often?
The answer: Flying is statistically one of the safest ways we can travel and while there are some health risks to consider, you can still have a healthy journey by taking a few simple steps.
The most common risk is catching an infectious disease such as a cold, flu or stomach bug. Be sure to practice healthy habits: wash your hands, avoid touching your face and stay well hydrated throughout the flight to keep your defences up. If you're travelling during flu season, consider getting the flu shot a couple of weeks beforehand. And you can wear a mask to minimize spreading the illness to your fellow passengers.
If you can't equilibrate the pressure differences between the cabin and your inner ear by swallowing or chewing gum, you may experience "airplane ear" that can cause pain, vertigo, loss of hearing, and in severe cases, a rupture of the ear drum. To minimize this risk, and especially if you are congested, take decongestants that may help you adjust better.
As well, the volume in an airplane has been compared to that of a nightclub, so the more your fly, the higher risk of noise-induced hearing loss. We tend to wear earphones and play music at high volumes to overcome this ambient noise. Because you travel often, consider noise-reducing earplugs and use caution with the volume.
When we sit for long periods of time in the cramped spaces of a plane, blood can pool in the lower legs, which increases the risk of developing a blood clot or a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). This is a potentially fatal condition if the clot travels from the legs up to the lungs. Those at risk of developing a DVT include people who are pregnant, on the oral contraceptive pill, cancer patients, those who have had recent surgery, or have had a previous blood clot or clotting disorder. It is important to get up and walk around to improve circulation. If you have had a blood clot in the past or you fall into the high-risk group, your doctor may consider prescribing a blood thinner.
Often feared, the security X-ray machine seems like a dangerous thing to go through but the radiation risk is minimal and can be considered equivalent to the radiation exposure of operating a flashlight. In terms of the radiation on a flight, a long-haul, round-trip flight (i.e. between Toronto to Beijing) is equivalent to one chest X-ray. Over time with repeat flights, the exposure may certainly pose a risk but further studies need to be done to understand the implications on our health.
Finally, studies have found that the effect of frequent travel on the circadian rhythm can lead to changes similar to that experienced by people who do shift work. This constant adjusting to time change can result in cognitive decline, decrease in mood and sleep disorders. Minimize the affect by ensuring you get proper sleep before your flight and at your destination, eat well, hydrate regularly and get regular exercise to boost your ability to adjust faster.
Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.
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