Flying high but feeling sick? What to know about altitude sickness


by Baylor Scott & White Health

Jun 30, 2021

When you’re packed on an airplane full of passengers, there are many reasons why you may feel uncomfortable. Maybe you don’t have enough leg room or there’s a crying baby in your row.

When you’re soaring thousands of feet in the air, you may experience some altitude sickness. Although the cabin is pressurized to be safe for travelers, the air pressure can still translate to roughly 8,000 feet above sea level. For some, this can mean uncomfortable symptoms of altitude sickness.

The definition of altitude sickness is a reaction to the lower amount of oxygen at high altitudes due to lower air pressure. Here are some tips on how to stay healthy while flying.

Why do I feel sick when flying?

The body has two main problems with high altitude and the corresponding lower air pressure:

  1. Air has less oxygen per breath
  2. Water evaporates faster and the air is dryer

When you’re flying in the air, you’re at a higher altitude and so you may experience some irritating symptoms of altitude sickness, which can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle cramps
  • Backache
  • Headache
  • Stomach ache
  • Lightheadedness

Why am I always the one to feel sick?

If you have medical concerns, you may be more at risk for an uncomfortable flight. Individuals with heart and lung disease can be affected more than their healthy counterparts. Lower oxygen levels can affect people with heart and lung disease more than individuals who do not have these health problems.

For unknown reasons, passengers between the ages of 16 and 25 also seem to be more affected by flying.

What can I do to avoid feeling sick when traveling?

  • Hydration: Remember to drink plenty of water before flying, even if you tossed your liquids at the security checkpoint. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, both of which can lead to dehydration.
  • Get up and stretch: Especially on long flights, walk around the cabin and stretch the legs. This also decreases the risk of developing clots in the legs, also known as deep vein thrombosis or DVT.
  • Consider medications: Some medical providers recommend taking anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen about 30 to 60 minutes before the flight to decrease the risk of headaches and muscle aches.
  • Rest: When traveling, there are lots of things to remember at the last minute. You may be tempted to stay up late packing or finishing arrangements. But to help avoid plane sickness, get a good night’s sleep before traveling.

Talk to your doctor if you’re nervous about flying. If you often become nauseated or fearful on flights, your doctor may be able to prescribe medications that can help.

Happy travels!

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