15 Ways Flying on an Airplane Affects Your Body
From headaches to ear pain, here's what happens to your body when you fly.
Airplane travel is the bane of every vacationer's existence—and it's not just because of the overcrowded airports, standstill security lines, and subpar food offerings. It's that flying wreaks havoc on our bodies. Once you're settled on the plane, you have to worry about dried-up skin, bloated stomachs, and painfully popping ears. Even if you're in the first class cabin, there's frankly not a whole lot you can do about the way flying on an airplane affects your body. What you can do, however, is bone up on what exactly those effects are, so, at the very least, you can know what to expect. Keep reading to discover what exactly happens to your body on an airplane!
Your taste buds go numb.
Don't blame the airline for those lackluster in-flight meals: 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, as cited by The Wall Street Journal.
And a 2015 study from Cornell University found that it's umami-rich foods like tomato juice that taste best in noisy situations like on an airplane—so if you want to enjoy what you consume while you fly at least a little bit, consider splurging on that Bloody Mary.
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 on the average 10-hour flight, as physiologist Yasmin Badiani explained to Marie Claire UK. Dehydration can lead to bloating, constipation, and serious headaches, so be sure to drink up when you fly!
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 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. Other symptoms to watch out for include swelling, pain, and reddened skin that is warm to the touch.
Your skin dries up.
Your skin is happiest when the humidity in the air 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.
Though it would 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.
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.
You're more likely to get sick.
On a plane, there's nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, especially when it comes to germs. When Today conducted a cross-country experiment in 2014, they found that the bacteria responsible for the common cold, influenza, E. coli, listeria, and MRSA were all present in airports and on planes.
What's more, if someone in close proximity to you is sick, you have an 80 percent chance of coming down with whatever they have, according to a 2018 study led by researchers from Emory University and Georgia Tech. Not the best way to start a vacation!
Your head hurts.
Headaches while flying are a common occurrence. According to The Migraine Trust, this is because there is reduced oxygen in the circulating air of an airplane—and without adequate oxygen supply, the brain can't function properly. Other things like dehydration and sitting for long periods of time can also contribute to these travel headaches.
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 a 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, DDS, explained to HuffPost, "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.
You feel sleepy.
The cabin pressure in an airplane is kept at what you'd find at 8,000 feet in elevation, which means your body feels like it's sitting on a 8,000 foot tall mountain while you fly. "That's a significant difference for people who live at sea level, and aren't used to it," Brent Blue, a doctor and longtime pilot, told Vox. Because most of us aren't acclimated to this, the saturation of oxygen in our red blood cells decreases.
"If you're flying for six hours and dropping your blood's oxygen saturation by 5 or 10 percent, the fatigue factor is significant," Blue explained. Our bodies can't function at their normal speeds in these conditions, so it's harder to stay awake in the air than it is on the ground.
Your breath gets smelly.
Up in the air, our saliva production slows down, thereby creating a breeding ground for bacteria in the 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 consume on vacation only contribute to halitosis.
If you want your breath to be minty fresh upon landing, stay hydrated and opt for healthy foods—or pack a travel-sized toothbrush in your carry-on.
Your emotions run rampant.
Don't judge the person in the seat next to you for sobbing while they watch an in-flight movie. In a survey conducted by Virgin Atlantic in 2011, 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 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 second vodka soda if you don't want to end up unpleasantly intoxicated.
You become gassy.
Don't be embarrassed if you disembark the plane and feel the need to race to the restroom. As one 2013 paper in The New Zealand Medical Journal notes, flatulence "is greater at airplane cruising altitude."
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.