Tips for a Healthy & Successful Flight
The holiday season is fast approaching. It is a time when friends and family travel far and wide to gather and celebrate together. For many of us, this means making airline reservations. When preparing for your flight, you hope to avoid long waits, lost baggage and delayed departures, but don’t forget that air travel can wreak havoc on more than just your patience. Your sinuses, in particular, are especially prone to infection during air travel. Understanding how air travel affects the sinuses and tips for preventing sinusitis will have you prepared to board confidently, so that your only worry will be the impending turkey hangover after Thanksgiving dinner.
Air travel affects the sinuses most severely during liftoff and landing, following these simple holiday air travel tips can minimize the chance of suffering. The pressure inside your sinuses and ears often fails to equalize with that of the pressure inside the cabin. If you were already experiencing sinus congestion prior to your flight, this can be agonizingly painful. Increased pressure can traumatize your sinuses, increase congestion, and heighten symptoms of allergies and head colds. You might also be more susceptible to infection and blockages of your Eustachian tube (the narrow passageway that connects the middle ear to the back of the nose). If you can’t pop your ears, you may experience a number of painful and uncomfortable symptoms, including tinnitus (a ringing in the ears), vertigo (a sense of loss of balance), bleeding or rupturing of the eardrum, or, in severe cases, hearing loss.
Perhaps the most common complaint of air travelers post-flight is a cold followed by a sinus infection. Many factors contribute to your increased susceptibility to viruses and bacteria. These include the dry circulated air, sitting in close quarters with others, contact with surfaces where viruses and bacteria live, low humidity which causes the inside of your nose to dry out, and airborne viruses and bacteria. These issues can all contribute to the inflammation of your sinus’ delicate mucous membranes. As a result, those of us who are have frequent sinus infections, and even those of us who are not, may wind up entering the arrival gate with the beginning of a sinus infection.
Dr. Bennett’s 7 Tips for a Sinusitis-Free Flight
The key to minimizing the damaging effects of air travel is simple: follow the seven simple steps below to protect your sinuses and help maintain your health during the holidays. If used, these preventative measures will protect you from the low humidity, dry air, bacteria and pressure changes that you will be faced with on the day of your flight. Follow these holiday air travel tips:
Tip #1: In flight, use a saline solution
The best way to shield your sinuses from the damage inflicted by dry air and low humidity can be found in the small bottles of saline solution found at your local drugstore. Pick up a bottle for your carry-on luggage (3 ounces or less) and spray each nostril once per hour to keep the sinuses moist. Don’t worry about airport liquid restrictions, as most over-the-counter saline solutions are readily-available in travel sizes. A sinus saline gel is also available that will last longer in your nose per application.
Tip #2: Pack a decongestant spray
The best time to use your decongestant spray is before you board your flight. Check the nasal aisle at your pharmacy for products labeled Oxymetazoline or Phenylephrine. No matter how long or short the flight, always remember to use the spray between one and two hours before you board. It will not only decongest your nasal passages, but will also allow you to breathe properly and decrease the effects of pressure changes during your flight. Think sprays are too messy? You can alternatively pick up an oral decongestant, such as Pesudoephedrine or Phenylephrine for similar results. These medications can also be re-used during a very long flight. Decongestants keep the nose more open but can lead to additional drying inside the nose.
Tip #3: Hydrate before getting on a plane and during your flight (drink several glasses of water)
Whether you are flying internationally, across the country, or even one state over, staying hydrated is a key part of preventing the conditions that lead to sinusitis while up in the air.
Hydrating is important to combat the dry air inside the cabin. Dry air comes from the continuous cabin ventilation and low humidity felt at high altitudes. Drinking multiple glasses of water will ensure that your body maintains a proper level of moisture, especially in your sinus cavities. Drinking water during the flight is important as well
Tip #4: Steam your sinuses
Did you know that an airplane has the same or even lower relative humidity as a desert? The dry air inside the cabin decreases the mucus flow within your nose, allowing bacteria and viruses to stick to the inside of your nose. If you suffer from a deviated septum, you may notice an increased dryness in the larger side of your two nasal cavities. Dry air is also one of the biggest causes of sinus infections, especially for those of us who are naturally predisposed to acute or chronic sinusitis.
Combat dry air by ordering a hot tea on your flight, and then be sure to breathe in the steam. Dr. Bennett recommends ordering herbal teas as caffeine can be dehydrating. The steam from the tea will cause your sinuses to feel more open nearly instantaneously. You will not only breathe easier, but simultaneously decrease your chances of contracting a sinus infection.
Tip #5: Hold off on that coffee or beer
When faced with a particularly long or crowded flight, many people reach for a glass of wine or liquor to help ease the anxiety associated with flying. Dr. Bennett strongly recommends that patients resist this urge. Avoid both alcohol and caffeine during flights of any duration, as they contribute to dehydration and a loss of moisture in the nose. Substitute these beverages for water, and your nasal passages will thank you.
Tip #6: Perform a Modified Valsalva maneuver
The “Modified Valsalva” is a breathing technique that frequent fliers use to combat sinus troubles. To perform it, simply close your mouth, lightly pinch your nose shut with your thumb and forefinger, swallow and then blow gently into your nose, taking care not to release your thumb or forefinger.
This technique will clear your sinuses and help to normalize the pressure inside your head. For best results, perform it during liftoff, and again during descent and landing. The pressure increase during landing can compress the air in your sinuses and can be much more painful than takeoff.
Special Note: Dr. Bennett encourages individuals who complete this maneuver not to blow too powerfully. For optimal results, try performing the technique several times during liftoff and landing – when changes in cabin pressures are most noticeable. You can also complete the exercise a few times per hour once the plane reaches maximum altitude.
Dr. Bennett also recommends using EarPlanes – a product that creates the same results as the Modified Valsalva maneuver. EarPlanes are a specially-designed product created by the Air Force that are a great way to regulate air pressure in the ears during a flight. These special, discreet, earplugs minimize ear discomfort during the plane’s ascent and descent, while still allowing you to hear normally. As a bonus, they can also be worn with your headphones. EarPlanes won’t put a strain on your wallet either (prices are typically $6.99) and are widely-available at drugstores and kiosks in the airport.
Tip #7: Sanitize your hands
Bacteria and viruses can live on many airplane and airport surfaces including armrests, trays, control buttons and door handles. Pathogens like these enter your body through contact with your mucous membranes including your eyes, nose and mouth. Having and using a small bottle of hand sanitizer can dramatically lower your risk with bacteria and viruses and lower the chance that you will transfer them from your hands to your face. Sanitizing wipes can be used to clean surfaces near your seat that you may contact as well. Unless there is someone sneezing or coughing near you, a mask is less helpful to prevent infection as air turnover in a plane can be as little as 2 to 3 minutes.
Bonus tip: Dress Properly
Even if you might be expecting warm weather when you touch down in your arrival city, remember that the interior cabin of the plane is usually kept at a very cool temperature. Dress warmly or bring along a sweater, small blanket and thick pair of socks. Dress comfortably and avoid wearing shorts, tank-tops or sandals. This will prevent fatigue or chill during your flight and allow you to relax and enjoy the views from the window.
Dr. Bennett wishes everyone a happy and healthy holiday season. May you be surrounded by the love and warmth of your family and friends, and share with one another the joy and gratitude you bring to one another’s lives.