March 25, 2006 | Episode 12

Feather pillows
Trainor Rembe, manager of San Francisco's Flight 001, shares smart travel tips with host Brooke Alexander.
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How to Stay Healthy When You Fly

Experts answer four common travel questions

How do I avoid catching a cold in the air?

It’s a common myth that people contract all kinds of viruses and colds when they fly because they’re “breathing someone else’s recycled air.” Actually, the air on planes circulates from side to side, rather than from front to back, so it encompasses only a small horizontal area of seats. If the person sitting next to you has the flu, you might pick it up from him, but if you’re 10 seats away, you should be safe, says Abinash Virk, M.D., director of the travel and tropical-medicine clinic for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Still, you can guard against infection by following this advice:

• Start your trip healthy. “Basically, try to get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, and avoid people who are visibly ill,” says Thomas Bettes, M.D., corporate medical director for American Airlines.

• Keep germs at bay by frequently washing your hands. “You have to ask yourself, Are people handling door handles, railings — not washing hands? That’s basically how people pick up stuff, more often than from being on the plane itself,” says Virk.

Will taking a preventative supplement, like Airborne, or eating vitamin-rich foods protect me?

“Probably not,” says Virk of over-the-counter products like Airborne. As for loading up on foods rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, such as oranges, says Virk, “they would probably do very little in the short term.”

Should I avoid alcohol and caffeine?

Yes. “We usually tell people to avoid alcohol for long flights mainly because of jet lag and tiredness,” Virk says. And caffeine, she adds, is dehydrating, which could make you feel uncomfortable during the flight.

“The humidity inside an aircraft is about like it is in a desert,” Bettes explains. “Sometimes the low humidity makes people think they have  sore throats and nasal irritation.” Drinking lots of clear liquids will help counter that effect. “That means nonalcoholic liquids,” he says with a chuckle.

Should I worry about “economy-class syndrome”?

Deep-vein thrombosis, often referred to as “economy-class syndrome,” is one of the most talked about health worries in air travel today. In lay terms, it means a clot forms in the leg. And while most clots dissolve by themselves, sometimes one will dislodge and end up in the lungs, which can be fatal. “Sitting for a long time, like three or four hours, can stagnate the blood in the veins of the legs,” says Stanley Mohler, M.D., professor emeritus in the aerospace-medicine division of the department of community health at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio. “And it won’t get back to the heart because gravity is holding it down in the legs.”

As scary as deep-vein thrombosis sounds, experts seem to agree that frequent exercise during flight can help prevent it. Mohler recommends a quick routine that involves bringing the toes up, tensing the calves, and then tensing the thighs every few minutes. “It is important to walk around as much as every hour on an airplane,” he says.

“Sometimes using a below-knee compression stocking is helpful,” says Virk. “And, potentially, even taking aspirin may reduce the risk of blood clots.”

Both experts recommend that travelers talk to their doctors if they have any concerns or questions before flying.

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