This Is What Happens to Your Body on an Airplane
Yes, even to the folks in the first class cabin.
Whoever said that “it’s the journey, not the destination” clearly wasn’t traveling by plane. Airplane travel is the bane of every vacationer’s existence. And it’s not just overcrowded airports, standstill security lines, and subpar food offerings that contribute to this horror. Once we’re settled on the plane, we have to worry about dried-up skin, bloated stomachs, and painfully popped ears.
When it comes to these bodily changes, there’s frankly not a whole lot you can do—even if you’re in the first class cabin. What you can do, however, is bone up on what exactly those changes are, so, at the very least, you can know what to expect. Herein, you’ll find the 17 most significant changes your body goes through when it hits that 30,000-foot peak. And before you even board the airplane, be sure to read up on the 20 Ways to Make Travel Less Stressful.
Your taste buds go numb.
Don’t blame the airline for those standup-comic-targeted in-flight meals: An entire third of our tastebuds are numbed as soon as we hit 30,000 feet. And evidently, our ability to perceive saltiness and sweetness drops by as much as 30 percent when we’re in the air, according to a study conducted by German airline Lufthansa. In other words, it turns out we’re the deal with airplane food. Whether you can taste it or not, just make sure to steer clear of these 20 Foods Doctors Always Avoid While Traveling.
You become dehydrated.
Thanks to an airplane’s low humidity levels, a man can lose up to 8.5 cups of water and a woman can lose up to 6.8 cups of water on the average 10-hour flight, according to physiologist Yasmin Badiani. Dehydration can lead to bloating, constipation, and serious headaches, so drink up. For best results, buy all-natural spring water before your flight. Many in-flight water bottles, like Dasani, contain trace amounts of sodium that will only leave you feeling thirstier.
Your risk of developing a blot clot increases.
If your leg starts to cramp after a long flight, don’t wait to get it checked out. Being immobile for a long period of time (you know: like sitting on a plane) puts you at risk of developing blood clots in the deep veins of your legs. If left untreated, these blood clots can travel to the lungs and cause a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism. Symptoms to watch out for include swelling, pain, and reddened skin that is warm to the touch. And for more sky-high trivia, learn the 15 Surprising Things Pilots Do When They’re Bored.
Your skin dries up.
Your skin is happiest when the humidity is between 40 to 70 percent. On an airplane, the humidity levels are at about 20 percent—and as a result, your skin is drier than the Sahara. And though it would logically make sense to use a moisturizer to combat these circumstances, assistant clinical professor in dermatology Elizabeth Tanzi explained to Allure that “when there is no water in the air, moisturizers don’t work as well since there is nothing to grab onto.” Her recommendation? Opt for products containing hyaluronic acid, like this serum from Sephora ($35). And if scaly skin is something you deal with on a regular basis, make sure you’re not doing any of these 20 Habits That Make Dry Skin Worse.
And your face puffs up post-flight.
Water retention—otherwise known as bloat—shows up in areas aside from your abdomen. Unfortunately, the ingestion of salty foods combined with an overall lack of movement causes your face to bloat as well. Walking around your new destination for a little bit should drain this facial fluid—just steer clear of taking any selfies immediately after landing.
You’re more susceptible to getting sick.
On a plane, there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, especially when it comes to germs. TODAY conducted a cross-country experiment and found that the bacteria responsible for the common cold, influenza, E. coli, listeria, and MRSA were all present in airports and on planes. And if someone in close proximity to you is sick, you suffer an 80 percent chance of coming down with whatever they have, according to a study from Emory University and Georgia Tech. Not the best way to start a vacation.
Your radiation levels jump…
…but not enough to do any major harm. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flying from New York to Los Angeles would expose you to 3.5 mrem of cosmic radiation, which is less than you’d be exposed to during a chest x-ray. Unless you’re a flight attendant, a pilot, or an astronaut, the risks associated with this subjection is virtually nonexistent.
You get headaches.
“Oxygen partial pressure drops [in an aircraft cabin], creating a mild hypoxia, which can cause headaches in some susceptible individuals,” global medical director of aviation health for MedAire Paulo M. Alves, MD, told Reader’s Digest. To stop a splitting headache (or any other ailment) before it starts, try these 30 Smart Ways to Avoid Getting Sick When You Travel.
Your ears pop. (Worse than you think.)
If you’ve ever flown anywhere, then you’ve already experienced the unpleasant popping sensation that happens when the plane takes off and lands. This painful popping, known as airplane ear, occurs when the air pressure in the environment is different from the air pressure in your middle ear. Air pressure rapidly changes as you ascend into the air or descend back onto land. Thankfully, chewing gum or yawning should effectively counteract the effects of the altitude change and return your ears back to normal.
Your dull toothaches turn into serious sores.
The change in cabin pressure can turn a mild toothache into something much more severe. As Thomas P. Connelly, D.D.S., explained in the Huffington Post: “The air pressure in your body (your sinuses, your ears, etc.) must equate to the air pressure in the cabin… There are instances where you have air in your teeth and changes in pressure can make it hurt—and hurt badly.” Decaying, infection, and prior dental work can all leave a patch of air in your tooth, so be hyperaware of your dental health before boarding any flights. And while you’re taking care of your teeth, try these 20 Secrets for Whiter Teeth After 40.
Your memory starts to fade.
Taking the occasional trip won’t wreak havoc on your memory. Frequent fliers, on the other hand, need to be careful about switching time zones so often. According to a study published in PLoS ONE, chronic jet lag impairs a person’s ability to learn simple tasks and process memories up to a month after the actual jet lag has worn off. “The effects are long-lasting—not only to brain function, but likely to brain structure,” said study author Lance Kriegsfeld in a press release. And this is just one of the 35 Crazy Facts about Your Memory.
You get sleepy.
No need to pop a ZzzQuil before your next red-eye flight. The cabin pressure in an airplane is kept at what you’d find at 8,000 feet in elevation. And because most of us aren’t acclimated to this, the saturation of oxygen into our red blood cells decreases, which means that our bodies can’t function at their normal speeds. Basically, it’s harder to stay awake in the air than it is to pass out. And if for some reason you can’t enter dreamland, try these 10 Best Tricks for Sleeping on an Airplane.
Your emotions run rampant.
Don’t judge the person in the seat next to you for sobbing like a freshly broken-up teenager. In a survey conducted by Virgin Atlantic, 55 percent of travelers reported experiencing “heightened emotions while flying” and 41 percent of men noted that they had “buried themselves in blankets to hide tears in their eyes from other passengers.” As one Atlantic writer explained it: “You’ve finally reached the end of what was likely a full day of getting to the airport, and could have been weeks of preparing, or even years of an important life phase culminating in an end and new beginning. And that’s the time to have a good, long cry.”
Your breath smells.
Up in the air, our saliva production slows down, thereby creating a breeding ground for bacteria in your mouth. And newsflash: Bacteria stinks. Plus, it doesn’t help that most of us don’t exactly stick to our diet plans when traveling is involved. Unfortunately, the sugary foods we cherish on vacation only contribute to this halitosis. If you want your breath to be minty fresh upon landing, stay hydrated and opt for healthy foods—or, stick to the sweets and pack a travel-sized toothbrush in your carry-on.
Your back gets stiff and sore.
“Sitting down for long periods of time, especially in a confined space and at high altitude, can have a negative impact on your health and wellbeing,” British doctor Steve Iley told Cosmopolitan. “[And] if you’re cold, your muscles, tendons, and ligaments can contract, which can lead to strain and increased risk of back injury.” Should you hop off the plane with a stiff back, this is How to Conquer Lower Back Pain Forever.
Your tolerance for alcohol plummets.
Thanks to the low pressure and lack of humidity in the cabin, just a few drinks goes a long way on an airplane. You might be able to drink everyone under the table while on flat ground, but up in the air, think twice about that third vodka soda if you don’t want to end up unpleasantly intoxicated. And for thrilling things to do without ever boarding a plane, consider getting one of these 100 Amazing Tattoos for First-Timers.
You get gassy.
Don’t be embarrassed if you disembark the plane and feel the need to race to the restroom. According to one study out of the University of Copenhagen, the “changes in volume of intestinal gas due to altered cabin pressure increase the amount of potential flatus.”
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