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How to Prepare For a Long Flight

5 min read  |  May 22, 2024  | 

It’s vacation season, and for adventurous travelers, plans might include a long-haul flight to a faraway destination. The prospect of such a journey can be exhilarating — new scenery, new people, new foods — but the effects of spending many hours in a pressurized cabin zipping through the sky tens of thousands of feet in the air should not be dismissed.

“Being prepared for what might happen [during a long flight] is key,” says E. Robert Schwartz M.D., FAAFP, a family medicine physician at the University of Miami Health System. “You have to proactively think of what you will need before you get on the flight, while on the flight and after you get to your destination.”

Dr. Schwartz is no stranger to long flights. As the director of the Osher Center for Integrative Health, which emphasizes treating the whole person with conventional and alternative practices, Dr. Schwartz believes making the right choices can go a long way in minimizing the effects of jet lag and time changes. They will also make your trip that much more enjoyable.

Long haul flights are becoming more common.

This is happening just as size seats and legroom have been shrinking — a tradeoff that adds to the stressors of spending more time in the air. What used to be a flight broken into shorter trips with layovers can now be achieved more economically and with bigger planes that accommodate more people. 

For example, Singapore Airlines’ New York-to-Singapore route, spanning a whopping 9,585 miles, is considered the longest route on record, with 18.5 hours of flying time. A Qatar Airways route from Doha to Auckland comes in at a respectable second, clocking in at 17 hours and 30 minutes, with 9,032 miles.

That distinction will soon pass on to another airline, as new aircraft technology is making long-range flights even longer. Qantas, Australia’s flag carrier, recently announced that it will connect Australia with New York and London on a 19-hour non-stop flight in 2026.

Whether you’re flying for five hours or 15, however, Dr. Schwartz’s suggestions for a healthier, more comfortable journey still hold:

  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. The lower humidity levels in a pressurized cabin dry out your eyes, nose, throat, and even your skin. Drinking plenty of water will keep your insides moist. So, start before you board and continue throughout your flight.
  • Skip the alcohol. You might want to count this as part of your hydration practice, but, in truth, alcohol will dehydrate you. 
  • Avoid foods with high sugar content. Sweets may be a treat on vacation, but “they can keep you from sleeping,” Dr. Schwartz says. So, hold off on satisfying your sweet tooth until you land.  He also recommends avoiding heavy meals, greasy foods, and too much coffee to prevent any gut problems.
  • Get up and walk around the cabin. While seated, flex your feet. Keeping your blood circulating is essential to prevent clots in your legs known as deep vein thrombosis or DVT. “They’re not that common, but it does happen and it can be very dangerous,” he adds.  “They can also break off and travel to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism.”

There are certain risk factors for clots, including obesity, age, family history, recent surgery, cancer and pregnancy.

Also, the longer your flight, the higher the risk of developing clots. 

In one 2022 study, the risk of blood clots increased 26% for every two hours of air travel, starting after four hours.

  • Wear compression socks. They help blood flow in the legs and can help prevent blood clots. One word of warning, though: You may not develop the symptoms of a blood clot until after flight. But if you have pain and swelling in a leg, are short of breath, or feel chest pain, seek medical help immediately.
  • Wear your N95 mask, particularly if you suffer from asthma, COPD, or an autoimmune disease.  “I know they’re uncomfortable,” Dr. Schwartz says, “but they’ll protect you from the coughing, sneezing passenger two rows up.”
  • If you suffer from ear or sinus issues, take OTC allergy medication, such as Allegra-D or Zyrtec-D, before boarding. This helps prevent some of the earaches and headaches caused by the pressure on your eardrums.
  • Keep your medications easily accessible, so they’re there if and when you need them. Also, pack a neck pillow, an eye-mask, and ear plugs. They may help you get some zzzz. Dr. Schwartz doesn’t recommend taking sleep medicine or “drinking yourself into a stupor.” Still, if you’re anxious about flying, you might want to consider anti-anxiety medicine for this one occasion. Consult your doctor.
  • Expose yourself to sunlight as soon as you land. Spend as much time as you can outside during the day. This will help reset your circadian clock and ease your entry into a different time zone. Exercising, or simply moving around, will also help your body adjust.

Headshot of Ana Veciana, author (2023)

Ana Veciana-Suarez is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.


Tags: Dr. E Robert Schwartz, healthy flight, healthy travel, travelling

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