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What to do if you get sick on a plane

It’s hard to imagine a worse place to get sick than on an airplane. But unfortunately, it happens – in many forms.

There are a number of unpleasant and even potentially dangerous conditions that travelers can develop during a flight. Nausea, diarrhea, headaches, dizziness, congestion, blood clots, sinus infections, tinnitus: travelers can find themselves confronted with these problems once in the air.

“A serious sinus infection can sometimes get worse when you fly because of the change in air pressure,” Dr. Danielle Qing, an assistant professor and specialist in internal medicine at Mount Sinai, told HuffPost. “This can lead to a popping sensation in the eardrums and, in very rare cases, cause your eardrum to perforate. And then, of course, there’s motion sickness, which can take the form of nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness. Turbulence can make the situation worse.

Getting sick while flying can be difficult to deal with. As Dr. Daniel Chandler, a primary care physician at Tufts Medical Center, told HuffPost: “Airplanes are funny places because things that would be so easy to repair on the ground are harder to repair in the air in due to a lack of resources and people to fix it.

However, there are steps you can take to alleviate the problem if you become ill on a plane. HuffPost asked doctors to share their tips for dealing with in-flight illnesses.

Avoid looking at screens.

“If you suffer from motion sickness, try to avoid visual things like your phone or TVs on the plane,” Chandler said. “Instead, sleep. But if you can’t sleep, listen to something like music, a podcast, or an audiobook.

If you’re trying to avoid nausea, he also advises against looking at vomit bags in the seats, as that could make you feel even more nauseous.

“Look at the horizon if you’re sitting near a window,” said Dr. Rabia De Latour, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. She also recommended avoiding unnecessary head movement.

Qing offered similar advice for dizziness.

“Closing your eyes and applying a cold compress can often alleviate symptoms,” she said.

Moisturize, hydrate, hydrate.

If you experience nausea or gastrointestinal symptoms, do your best to stay hydrated, as dehydration can make your condition worse. However, be sure to drink your fluids slowly and carefully to avoid another trip to the bathroom.

“Try to hydrate with water, not soda,” De Latour said.

The airplane cabin environment can be very dehydrating, so even if you don’t feel sick, be especially careful to drink plenty of water on flight days. Getting enough H2O can also help relieve headaches and dizziness.

“People don’t drink enough water when they travel, so dehydration is a common cause of headaches during a flight,” Chandler said. “Sometimes dizziness is just a version of motion sickness, but sometimes it can also come from dehydration. Especially if you drink alcohol, drink some extra water.

Try to eat some food.

Sometimes eating is the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling sick. But do what you can to get a little something.

“Try some bread or crackers,” Chandler said. “Having a small amount of bland food in your stomach can actually ease that nausea a little.”

Many experts recommend the BRAT diet – bananas, rice, applesauce and toast – for nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea. Travelers with chronic illnesses should also try to pack useful snacks in their bags.

“If you have diabetes or take insulin, be sure to bring candy or snacks on board in case your blood sugar gets too low,” Qing said.

To take pills.

“When traveling, it’s always a good idea to keep an extra supply of medications on hand, especially if you have certain chronic illnesses, like diabetes or angina,” Qing said. “Having at least seven days of your medication in your carry-on bag is a useful precaution, especially if your checked bag is lost.”

For example, if you have a seizure disorder, she recommended having your seizure medications on hand in case of an emergency. People with coronary heart disease or angina should bring their nitroglycerin tablets, and anyone with a history of anaphylaxis should bring an EpiPen, in addition to informing the airline of their allergy concerns.

If you’ve suffered from motion sickness while traveling, take medications like Dramamine to help, Chandler said.

He noted that many travelers pack medications like ibuprofen, aspirin, Pepto-Bismol, Tylenol, Benadryl and Excedrin to treat potential health problems, especially if they have a history.

“Traveler’s diarrhea is pretty common, so if you’re traveling to a country where it happens a lot, you might want to bring some medication,” Chandler said. “Usually it’s 12 to 24 lousy hours that you just have to endure. But you have to stay hydrated.

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It’s important to try to stay hydrated when illness occurs, especially in a dehydrating environment in an airplane cabin.

Stay seated.

Some illnesses that occur may require you to go to the bathroom frequently, but most of the time you want to stay in your seat while sick on a plane, especially if you experience dizziness or headaches.

“Try to stay seated, because sometimes standing could make your symptoms worse,” Qing said.

“Make sure you are not standing to avoid the risk of falling and head injuries,” added De Latour. “If you’re able to lie down, that’s ideal, although it can be difficult on a plane.”

If you can fall asleep sitting or lying down, it’s a perfect way to pass the flight time and keep your body still.

“Dizziness could also come from something called vertigo,” Chandler said. “If you have a predisposition to vertigo or have suffered from it, certain medications can help you. Otherwise, keep your head down and your eyes closed. Having your center of gravity a little lower can help you feel less dizzy.

Talk to a flight attendant.

Vomiting or having diarrhea during a flight may seem embarrassing, but it’s important to tell a member of the flight crew if you experience a health problem.

“If you have any of these symptoms, the first thing you should do is notify a flight attendant so they can get you medical attention if necessary,” Qing said. “They should be able to get you water or other fluids, especially if you are dehydrated. Many airlines also offer over-the-counter medications that may help you feel better.

In extreme situations, the flight crew may even designate a toilet for you to use for extended periods of time, although they may not allow you to stay there during takeoff and landing.

Tell a flight attendant if you feel dizzy and your symptoms also worsen. The more information the crew has, the easier it is for them to help you properly if you pass out.

“The flight attendants are incredibly well trained,” Chandler said. “If you have a chronic illness – for example, you have diabetes and are at risk for low blood sugar – wear a medical ID bracelet so people can read it and know if you need to give you sugar or check your blood sugar.”

He also recommended traveling with a list of your chronic illnesses, allergies and medications you take.

Watch out for blood clots.

“Another important issue to watch out for, especially in long-distance flights, is blood clots, especially in people who have a history of them,” Qing said. “The best defense against blood clots is simply to move your legs every once in a while. Swelling or pain in one leg may be a sign of a blood clot.

Staying still for long periods increases your risk of developing blood clots, and conditions such as pregnancy can further increase your risk. If you have a history of blood clots, Qing suggested trying to walk down the aisle every few hours to avoid developing another one.

You can also ask flight attendants for permission to move, as long as it is safe to do so. Compression socks are also helpful.

“Usually when a flight causes blood clots, they develop after landing. But these days, some flights last almost 20 hours,” Chandler said. “Make sure you walk every 30 to 60 minutes. And if you notice that one leg is more swollen than the other, you should definitely alert the cabin crew.

Avoid flying when you are sick when possible.

Sometimes the illness develops unexpectedly during air travel, but in other cases you might be warned.

“Avoid flying when hungover or lacking alcohol,” De Latour said. “Avoid traveling when you are sick, also to avoid infecting others. Do not fly if your underlying health condition is unstable.

Consult a healthcare professional before flying if in doubt.

“If you have certain lung conditions that require oxygen, they may worsen due to the change in air pressure,” Qing said. “If you’re on oxygen, it’s definitely a good idea to discuss your plans with your doctor.”

Also be aware of time zone changes if you are traveling a long distance.

“It’s very easy to forget a dose of your medication because your phone may switch to local time while your body is at its original time,” Chandler said. “Be sure to take any medications you take regularly so that your chronic condition is not exacerbated.”

Do your best to make contingency plans, even if that means postponing your trip or taking precautions like wearing a diaper, Chandler added.

“It may seem complicated, but planning ahead can help avoid a scary situation,” Qing said. “If you have any questions, please ask your doctor before you leave. This is why we are here.

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