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Cold & Flu Turbulence -- Staying Healthy While Flying

(October 1999)

While I was on vacation recently, I picked up a little something that was neither on my shopping list nor on my sightseeing itinerary - a cold! The dreaded cold and flu season is upon us, and we need to prepare for the inevitable encounter. The old saying, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is timeless advice for the traveler.

I don't know about you, but I cringe when I am sitting near someone on a plane that has a persistent cough or is constantly blowing their nose. I wonder if I'll be leaving the plane with more than just my carry-ons. Our worker-bee habits push us to carry on even when we are sick.

So how do you decide when it's best not to fly? If in doubt you should always seek the advice of a qualified physician, they are the best source to guide you to the right choice. However, if for some reason you cannot see a doctor, here are some basic guidelines to protect yourself and your fellow travelers:

Don't fly if you have

An ear infection

The flu

A head cold

Respiratory infection

Sinus infection or pain


High fever

If you decide to fly with some of these conditions, you may be putting your hearing at risk. In a pressurized aircraft, any substantial inflammation of the ear canals, sinuses, or throat areas puts you in jeopardy of perforating your eardrum. I sadly saw this happen when I was a flight attendant. A fellow crewmember flew with a head cold. Her eardrum perforated mid-flight, causing her excruciating pain. When all was said and done, she ended up being virtually deaf in one ear, and her flying career was over. Nothing is worth traveling for if it could make your health worse.

If you don't have any of the above but are feeling a bit under the weather here are some tips to help you travel more comfortably and to minimize other passengers' exposure:

Sit alone if you can. This may be very difficult with airline load factors at an all time high, but let the flight attendant know that you are feeling ill, and he or she will see what can be done.

Limit person-to-person contact. Wash you hands often and thoroughly. I recommend using one of the many antibacterial soaps or hand gels that are currently on the market. Don't shake hands, and turn away from others when you cough or sneeze. Also, try to remember to use paper towels or tissues when opening doors or using the phone.

Drink a lot of water. Becoming dehydrated can cause additional health complications. Make sure you avoid alcohol and caffeine, as they act as diuretics. Flying dehydrates you even when you aren't ill. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is to drink 8oz or more of water for each flight hour. The cabin environment is like being in the desert. To keep a normal level of hydration you should drink 20% more in fluids to compensate for the dryness.

Take your medicine. If you are feeling congested, make sure you take a decongestant medication to minimize the effects of pressure changes to your ears. Don't forget to time your dosages properly and read the labels thoroughly. Don't wait until the last minute to take your medication - it may not be effective when you need it most.

Keep your nasal passages moist. Diana Fairechild, author of Jet Smart & Jet Smarter, and webmaster for "Healthy Flying with Diana Fairechild" (, recommends you keep your nasal passages moist with vegetable oil or saline spray. This helps block the spread of germs into your body. Here are additional resources for staying healthy when you're on the road:

HotelDocs When you're on the road, HotelDocs - the nationwide doctors-on-call service - will promptly have a doctor at your hotel whenever you get sick. Save $30 on all doctor visits when you identify yourself as a Smarter Living member. Click here for your I.D. card and instructions.

Travel Health Online. Information on numerous medical and health sources around the world.

Healthy Flying With Diana Fairechild. Former veteran flight attendant offers terrific advice on staying healthy in the air.

Center For Disease Control. A comprehensive site with reliable overviews of worldwide health risks.

MedAccess On-Line. When you need to find a local doctor or hospital on the road.

International Society of Travel Medicine. Search for international clinics or specialists.

CyberDocs. Where the doctor is always in! The first "live" interactive virtual doctor's office. For a small fee, an American Medical Association (AMA) certified physician will answer any medical questions you may have.

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