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Little Known Travel Health Concerns

(March 2000)

Successful traveling is healthy traveling. All it takes is a bit of planning, eating carefully while you are away, and recognizing the early warning signs of possible health-care emergencies. We all know about the usual travel ailments such as jet lag and "Montezuma's Revenge" to name a few. Nevertheless, there are some ailments associated with travel that many people donít know about.

The Hazards Of Flying

Avoid Tooth Pain

Did you know that if you have just had any invasive dental work done you shouldn't fly? Dentists recommend that you do not fly within 12 hours after dental work. If you have a root canal, you may have to wait as much as a few days. The reason is the change in atmospheric pressure can cause severe pain and possibly hemorrhaging.

Low Blood Sugar Woes & Dehydration

Avoid consuming high calorie food and drink offered on airplanes. Alcohol, peanuts, soda, and other foods that have empty calories can cause a swing from high to low blood sugar. You go from feeling great to feeling tired, cramped, and headachy.

Did you know one alcohol drink in-flight is equivalent to two on the ground? Why is this? Bodily fluids evaporate quickly in a dry, pressurized aircraft cabin. Furthermore, in a pressurized environment alcohol absorbs more fluids in the intestinal tract, which in turn causes a quick, "woozy" effect. To reduce the dehydration caused by a long flight (four hours or more), drink eight ounces of water for every hour in-flight.

Solar Radiation

Did you know that when you fly from New York to Los Angeles you are exposed to as much radiation as you would receive from a chest x-ray? Radiation exposure related to air travel is greatly underestimated. Flying at high altitudes offers less protection from cosmic radiation, even in an airplane cabin, because the thinner atmosphere allows for increased exposure to sunrays.

The average person receives 360 millirems of radiation each year, 300 from natural sources and 60 from man-made. A millerem, also called mrem, is a unit of radiation exposure. The average x-ray procedure exposes you to 40 mrem's of radiation. There is evidence to suggest that cosmic radiation is a source of genetic mutation. It is considered especially dangerous to pregnant women and newborns, especially if they fly frequently or during peaks in the sunspot cycle, when radiation from the solar source is greatest.

Blood Clots

Medical experts have known for decades that sitting in a cramped position can lead to blood clots in the legs. Long airplane flights sitting in a cramped seat appears to pose a particular risk. Although leg clots are believed to be a rare danger in air travel, the problem is drawing more concern as more people are flying than ever before.

Clots that travel to the lungs have caused sudden death in airline passengers, sometimes shortly after landing when a passenger with a leg clot walks off the plane. During a 1983-1986 study at London's Heathrow Airport, it was found that 18% of the 61 sudden deaths among long-distance passengers were caused by such breakaway blood clots.

Many passengers have risk factors that increase their chances of blood clots; however, many do not realize it. For example, people with varicose veins, cancer, a history of leg clots, or who smoke are at greater risk. Similarly, people who have had recent leg or pelvic surgery, a leg injury, bed rest, or general anesthesia are more likely to experience dangerous blot clots. Furthermore, women who are pregnant or taking birth control pills are more likely to develop leg clots, as are travelers who are overweight, elderly, or particularly tall.

The best way to prevent blood clots from forming is to get up and walk around the cabin every hour or so during a long flight. In addition, you should wear loose clothes and try stretching and foot exercises while seated.

Beware Of Cold Drinks

Last year on a cruise in the Southern Caribbean I experienced something that I thought would never happen to me while I was healthy: I passed out. One minute I was dancing on the Lido deck to rhythms of calypso music, sipping a frozen margarita, and the next thing I knew I was flat out on the deck.

So, what was the cause? A little known condition called deglutition syncope syndrome. This condition occurs when a cold drink causes a reflex action in the nerves along the esophagus. The result is that your blood pressure drops and your heart rate slows, causing you to pass out. Many incidents of deglutition syncope occur while people are on vacation in tropical climates.

Cardiologists note that the colder the beverage, the more likely this is to happen. The syndrome has only recently been connected with drinking cold soft drinks. Thousands of people, if not more, are at risk, and the problem is more common in older people than in younger people. In some, the condition is so severe that they require a pacemaker to keep their heart from beating too slowly.

If you feel weak, dizzy, deeply fatigued, or break out in a cold sweat after drinking a cold beverage, you might be susceptible. Your best bet is to not consume very cold drinks, especially in warm environments.

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