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Marek Struszczyk

Co-Founder ManagerUp

Are you a senior manager who must travel frequently? Is a plane your second home and you always have a travel bag ready to fly out for another meeting at the drop of a hat? If you nodded yes to any of these questions, then the effects of flying on the human body are something you need to factor into your travel plans.

Airplanes maybe the fastest mode of transport and a fundamental need for business expansion; however, they are not without their pitfalls. “In 1997, the World Bank sponsored a detailed study that discovered that significantly higher rates of health insurance claims were filed by employees who traveled compared with those who did not,” says the report in the New York Times.

Flights pose numerous hidden health risks that most of us are unaware of. The effects of flying on the human body vary from mild skin dryness to more severe problems like deafness. Flying increases the risk of catching a cold, dehydration, aging faster, reduced alertness, increased risk of diseases like cancer, fuzzy thinking, and many others.

As a senior executive, maybe you cannot avoid flying, as it is a part of your job. However, to manage these health concerns successfully, a few hacks might go a long way even as you jet across the world.

Today we take a look at some of the effects of flying on the human body and the health risks that accompany flying.


Challenges that Executives May Face on the Plane

Seemingly safe, an airplane is a hostile environment as far as health is concerned for every executive who travels by plane. The in-flight environment is different than at home, at the office or in the car. It is a completely manmade and highly controlled environment. This means that there is a lot that is beyond control as well.

Some of the challenges that we face are caused by conditions created by a high altitude and changes in atmospheric pressure. Others are caused by an attack on our immunity due to too many people in a closed environment and disruptions in our routine.

Let’s take a look at the most common issues we can face during a flight. It can help us tackle them well.


1. Changes in the air pressure while taking off and descending

Being a CEO who needs to fly for business meetings and conferences regularly, you might have often experienced a popping sensation in the ears or abdominal discomfort while the plane takes off and lands. As the plane takes off and the altitude rises, the gases in the air cabin expand due to decreased air pressure. Before landing, as the plane descends, the air pressure starts increasing, due to which the gases start contracting.

These changes in air pressure may affect body parts in which air is trapped, for example, causing a popping in the ears due to the trapped air inside the ear.


2. Lower air pressure than at sea level and low oxygen level

Airplanes fly at high altitudes where the air pressure is lower than the air pressure at sea level. Therefore, pressure changes are made in the cabins to equalize it to the atmospheric pressure on the ground and maintain a comfortable environment for us. Despite these changes in cabin pressure, it is hard to replicate the pressure on the ground.

As per the World Health Organization (WHO), the pressure in the plane at an altitude of 36,000 to 40,000 feet is similar to that of atmospheric pressure at 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. This creates discomfort, and the low oxygen level can lead to difficulty breathing.


3. Dry air and low humidity

The humidity inside an airplane is very low, which leads to dry air. The dry air dries up the mucous membranes, thereby increasing the risk of contracting infections.


4. Cosmic (UV) radiation

Cosmic rays are the radiations from the sun and other elements in the universe. At sea level, we remain protected by the atmospheric shield. But at higher altitudes, such as on flights, there is increased exposure to cosmic rays that increases the risk of health problems caused by these rays. As a frequently traveling executive, you are at a higher risk of exposure to these rays compared to others.


5. Turbulence

Although turbulence is usually not felt except during take-off and landing, some of us experience motion sickness during these periods. Choosing the mid-section seat while booking flight tickets can help avoid such experiences that occur due to in-air turbulence.


6. New time zone

Are the after-effects of traveling more difficult than traveling? This can be true because of the disturbed circadian rhythm. Changes in time zone affect your sleep cycle, which greatly affects your overall health and, consequently, your productivity at work.


7. The concentration of germs

Air vents in the plane circulate air. However, cabin air contains only 50% fresh air from outside, and the remaining 50% is the re-circulated air. We cannot open the windows remember! An airplane is a completely packed room with air vents as the only source of ventilation.

It leads to an increased concentration of germs in the air you breathe. These germs can survive for days or even weeks inside the plane! Airplane seats, handles, tray tables, and other surfaces on the plane can harbor bacteria. Repeated exposure to these microbes increases your risk of infection.


8. Unhealthy eating

The food provided in the airplane is mostly packaged. This means it contains a high amount of saturated fats – the bad ones. Being a frequently traveling executive often translates into greater consumption of such unhealthy food and increased health risks. Fasting while on the flight can save you from such food. Keep you healthier in the long run by averting high cholesterol and the risk heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.


9. Contradictory signals from the vestibular system and the eyes

Our vestibular system consists of numerous tiny canals within the ear, which help the body maintain balance in relation to its surrounding. It can sense the changes in air pressure and the movement of the airplane as it takes off and lands. It can also sense if there is turbulence mid-air.

However, our eyes do not see any of these changes, leading to a state of confusion and mixed signals to the brain when you are flying.


10. Sitting for a long while in an uncomfortable position

So many times, we experience discomfort, swelling in the feet, and joint stiffness during or after a flight. This is because the blood flow is reduced, especially in the legs, while we are seated continuously for long.


11. Fear of possible technical failures and bad weather

Most flight phobics, although aware of the facts that a flight is safe and their fear may be irrational, are still debilitated with a fear of technical failures, bad weather, and even minor turbulence. This constant worry can be harmful to your work performance if you are a senior manager who must fly often.



Effects of Flying on the Human Body and the Risk of Health Issues


1. Executives are at a 100 times higher risk of catching a cold

What could be more discomforting than sitting beside a sneezing passenger? Due to the lower humidity, our mucous membranes dry up, making us more susceptible to a microbial infection.

If you catch a cold before reaching your destination, you might be too disturbed to focus on the goals of the trip. A bad cold may make it very difficult for you to give presentations and also focus on your business goals.


2. Executives are at an increased risk of breast and skin cancers

A study conducted by a group of researchers reported that extensive air traveling may lead to an increased incidence of breast cancer and melanoma. A study published by Di Trolio R et al. reported that cosmic rays could lead to various changes in the genes, which are the cause of these cancers.

However, it is unclear whether flying is the culprit behind other cancers too.


3. Hypoxia or low oxygen is a risk in executives who have existing medical conditions

As the plane goes higher, the air pressure and the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere reduce. The amount of oxygen available on the aircraft is sufficient for us to breathe comfortably when we are healthy.

However, those who are unhealthy are at a higher risk of suffering from hypoxia. It leads to less oxygen absorption in the blood and can lead to difficulty in breathing in managers with medical conditions. These medical conditions can be  anemia or heart or lung diseases, such as coronary heart disease or pulmonary hypertension.

Executives who suffer from these diseases are unable to tolerate low oxygen conditions.


4. Low oxygen can cause fuzzy thinking and hamper productivity

Low oxygen at high altitudes alters the thinking ability. This is one of the reasons executives should rest instead of working on a flight.

This claim is supported by the fact that aviation regulations insist pilots wear an oxygen mask above a certain altitude is to keep them sharp and alert.


5. Flying can cause anxiety

Courage and frequent flying are the key necessities to overcome fear and anxiety on a plane. Anxiety feeds on fear. Instead of feeding the fear, we should focus on trying to make this journey a restful one that can lead to an excellent deal and organizational progress.


6. Flying increases the risk of formation of blood clots three times

When we are seated for long hours, the prolonged immobility can result in pooling of the blood in the body, especially in the legs, leading to swelling, stiffness, and pain in legs. A prolonged period of immobility may lead to blood clots in the veins, a condition known as deep vein thrombosis.

According to a research study by WHO, long-haul flights lasting four hours and above have a two- to threefold risk of causing deep vein thrombosis. Thrombosis is a condition where blood clots are formed in the deep veins.

The WHO Research Into Global Hazards of Travel reported that one out of 6,000 passengers will suffer from deep vein thrombosis due to a long flight.


7. Flying leads to swelling in feet

When we sit for long hours, our ankles and feet may swell due to the pooling of blood, which is generally harmless. Stretching the legs, walking intermittently, and wearing loose clothing can help prevent swelling.


8. Headaches are common during landing

A systematic review published in 2017 suggested that airplane headache attacks are clinically stereotyped and occur as a very severe form of pain. They happen mostly during landing and may last for about 30 minutes. The study suggests that changes in air pressure can be the reason for an airplane headache.


9. Bad breath can make you unsociable

On long flights, when our salivary glands do not produce enough saliva and the mouth dries up, bacteria that cause bad breath to grow inside the mouth. Bad breath may also occur when we fast during the flight.

Another reason for bad breath is a condition called tooth squeeze. Tooth squeeze or barodontalgia is a toothache due to changes in pressure while flying.

Being an executive, you need to speak confidently in public. But, bad breath can be a millstone around your neck, pulling down your confidence while speaking to people.


10. Bloating is real

Gases expand at a higher altitude, due to which we experience bloating in the body in areas where gases are trapped. The gases contract on landing, and the bloating subsides.


11. Flying can make you gain pounds

Regular travel may be a part of your job; however, being seated for long hours on a flight can lead to increased weight.

How is gaining pounds one of the effects of flying on the human body? Blame it on the combination of packed food and stress. As Men’s Health explains, “Not only are you within striking distance of the airport food court, but also the normal aggravation you endure when traveling fires up your body’s stress hormones—actually making you crave those sugary, high-calorie foods you find at the airport.”


12. The jet lag can pull you down

Jet lag is the most common disorder that occurs among regular travelers. As your job may need you to travel to different parts of the world several times a month to oversee regional offices, the changing time zone could lead to a disturbed circadian rhythm and cause jet lag. It is one of the most common problems you have to face as a senior executive.



13. You age faster in flight

Of the multiple stressors that cause us to age faster, the stress of our responsibilities as a manager, entrepreneur, or a business executive cannot be ignored. Extensive flying, which is part and parcel of a manager’s job, is also known to make us age faster. Physicist Chin-Wen Chou points out that when we are on a flight, we age a bit faster than when on the ground.


14. Flying can dehydrate our body

The low moisture content on a flight causes our nasal passages to dry up, which can make us prone to microbial infections. Executives may also become groggy and face reduced cognitive performance due to dehydration.

Although there is no evidence on internal dehydration, drinking plenty of water can help prevent these symptoms of dryness.


15. Cabin air can dry your skin

The humidity on a flight is as low as 20%, which is less than half of that on the ground (40%-70%). This low humidity on a flight results in drying of skin and chapped lips, which can lead to flaky and irritated skin. The oil glands in our skin secrete more sebum to compensate for the dryness, leading to oily skin, which is more prone to pimples.

As an executive who needs to be presentable at all times, it is necessary to take proper care of the skin. Using a moisturizer to keep the skin moist and healthy is the best way to prevent skin dryness and consequent skin breakouts.


16. In-flight environment can cause dry eyes

Dryness of the eyes is not as simple as drying of skin because eye dryness may lead to itching of the eyes and cause severe discomfort throughout the journey.

Dryness and itching of the eyes during important meetings or presentations can distract us, make us lose our focus, and affect our productivity and impact as a high-profile influencer. There is a lot that you need to pick up from business presentations and dry eyes can be a real spoilsport.


17. Executives may face dryness of the mouth

Often a sign of nervousness, a dry mouth can be a real dampener if you are flying to make presentations or conduct important meetings.

The dry in-flight atmosphere can cause severe dehydration of the mouth, making you feel thirsty. Carrying bottled water or drinking sips of fluids frequently during flights is important to overcome dryness of the mouth.


18. Executives may face “popping sensation” in the ears or ear pain

The popping sensation or ear pain is caused by pressure changes that occur with a change in altitude. While take-off, the air escapes from the middle ear and the sinuses and, while landing, it flows back to equalize the pressure.

Generally, this does not cause any problems except minor discomfort. We should avoid flying or take appropriate medications if we have a nose, ear, or sinus infection, as it may interfere with the pressure adjustment within the ears.


19. Flying can cause nasty tooth pain

Barodontalgia is a toothache experienced due to pressure changes in the environment while on the airplane. It is not easily predictable. However, we may experience it if we have a dental pulp disease.


20. Pressure changes in flight reduces the sensation of taste by 30%

Most times, we feel that the taste of food is bland while on a plane. An interesting fact is, it’s not the food, it’s our taste buds that are duller when flying. A professor of experimental pharmacology at Oxford University reported that food and drinks taste different depending on whether we have them while in the air or on the ground.


21. Flying can make you sleepy

Even when we are comfortably seated, long travel hours, an endless journey, and the niggling thoughts of having to work after such a long journey tend to make us very tired. The combination of sitting for long hours, unhealthy food, and dehydration can also result in fatigue, leading to sleepiness.


22. Alertness goes for a toss for managers

Executives who fly frequently may experience sleepiness, fatigue, hypoxia, dehydration, a popping sensation in the ears, or tooth pain on a flight. These factors can hamper alertness and mental sharpness during work hours post flight when you need them the most.


23. Constipation can cause serious trouble

Executives can experience constipation after a long flight due to dehydration, low physical activity on the flight, and low-fiber food during the journey.



24. Beverages are the culprits – coffee, caffeinated tea, and alcohol

As executives, we need to have better focus and concentration and a calm mind for the business goals we set out to achieve. But consumption of caffeine and theine, the constituents of coffee and tea, increase the stress level and affect our output at work.

Also, caffeine and alcoholic beverages cause frequent urination. As we are already dehydrated due to the low humidity on the flight, consuming such drinks will have an add-on effect, leading to excessive internal dehydration.



25. Motion sickness can make a business trip go down the drain

Severe turbulence or medical conditions may lead to motion sickness while on the flight, leading to nausea and vomiting. To prevent this, executives can consult a physician for medicines that help you keep nausea at bay.


You can check our infographic on the related topic by clicking on image below:


Be aware of the effects of flying on the human body, and learn how to cope with air travel. This will help you ace your business trips and make it worth your while.

Did you experience any challenges other than those listed above? Share them in the comments, and we will give you tips to manage them well.


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