How Being a Frequent Flyer Hurts Your Health

Turns out, the jet-set life has its downsides. An expert weighs on how flight duration and travel frequency can cause sleep and blood-related health problems

Image by © Erik Isakson/Blend Images/Corbis

You don’t need an expert to tell you vacation is good for you—the second you step away from daily stressors, you feel unburdened in your mind, body, and soul. The anticipation of a vacation, a landmark Dutch study found, can actually boost your happiness more than the trip itself. But amid all of this advice to just hang out on Pinterest or Tripadvisor all day, dreaming up your next trip, the negative effects of travel are often glossed over in advertising and the media, according to a new study.

In the journal Environment and Planning A, researchers from the UK and Sweden examined not so much the physical and mental downsides of frequent travel, but instead the portrayal of frequent travel. They lamented that social and mass media make constant jet-setting seem all smiles, with no one ever discussing the serious health consequences like stress, jet lag, social isolation, and more.

And there are certain health hazards that come with flying too often. But the kind of constant, long-term, long-distance travel they discuss isn’t the experience for most people booking a five-day beach vacation. It’s the experience of someone like George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, a business traveler who’s burnt out, lonely, and sick of airport hotels.

So is there a health risk for those of us looking to get away every other weekend during the summer?

“It’s not too flying too frequently, it’s the length of the flight,” explains Victoria Sowards, director of nursing resources at PassportHealth, a national travel clinic. The longer the flight, the more risks there are of developing jet lag or deep-vein thrombosis—a scary-sounding term for developing blood clots deep in your leg. It can be caused by sitting still for all those hours on an international flight. And while this is one of the health threats the British and Swedish researchers mention is often overlooked, deep-vein thrombosis isn’t very prevalent in younger populations, Sowards says. “Those most at risk usually have other health problems, where there blood isn’t flowing properly.”

But the struggle of jet lag, as any seasoned traveler knows, is real. The more time zones you cross, the more messed-up your internal clock will be. It’s not just annoying to be that tired; it could put you at risk if you’re, say, driving in this part of the world.

Luckily, most health problems that occur during and after flying can be avoided by changing a bit of your behavior. “People just need to walk around, move their ankles, stretch in the aisle,” says Sowards. “If you’re someone with a history of blood clots or have another blood disorder, speak with your doctor about taking aspirin or some similar remedy before flying.”

As for jet lag, she advises experimenting with melatonin to regulate your sleep. Then there are other common-sense steps to take. “Drinking alcohol before or during a flight can intensify its effects and affect your sleep. Also, planes dry you out, so you have to drink plenty of water.” As for the germs on a plane, it’s not any worse than other public transportation, Sowards reasons, except you could be stuck in the enclosed space with a sick person for longer. “Wipe down the tray table and arm rest with those disinfectant wipes as soon as you sit down,” she suggests.

But what about the people who are flying constantly, the Don Drapers and George Clooney characters? Sowards is not so much worried about them. “People who travel on a weekly basis probably have tricks and techniques to deal with these issues,” she says. “They’ve learned how to sleep on planes. They have created routines. They’re also probably flying business class, where they can sleep comfortably and stretch.” If you can’t get their expense accounts, learn from their examples instead. Know your body and how it feels when you sit still, lose sleep, get dehydrated, and anticipate those needs before you get to the airport.

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