Europe blog and travel tips

In-flight health: How to stay healthy on long haul flights

May 4, 2015 (Last Updated: May 17, 2020)
by Carolyn
Aircraft seats

Flying to Europe from Australia is not something most people consider fun. Not only is 20-odd hours spent on a plane boring and tiring, it can also make you feel decidedly ‘yuk’. It’s also not something that we should take lightly as failure to take care of our health in-flight can have serious consequences.

If you’re like me, you disembark from a long-haul flight feeling decidedly crumpled and badly in need of a shower. And one look at the perfectly groomed flight attendants who still look gorgeous after 12 hours in the air and it’s enough to make me hang my head in shame.

But more important than looking our best when we reach our destination is maintaining our health whilst onboard.

A registered nurse recently commented to me, “I’m amazed at the number of people that don’t treat flying with the respect it deserves. People get on a plane to fly to the other side of the world as if they were getting on a bus for a trip to the shops,” she added.

“They don’t realise the toll flying can take on their bodies and we regularly nurse patients who have had excessive alcohol either on their holiday or on the flight home (or both), as well as excessive sun, and then been hospitalised with dehydration when they get home. The low cabin pressure in the aircraft certainly doesn’t help their cause.”

In flight Health How to stay healthy on longhaul flights Image © cheekylorns / Dollar Photo Club

So, what can you do to keep yourself healthy in-flight?

1. Stay hydrated

  • Drink lots of water – 2 to 3 glasses of water every five hours is recommended
  • Minimise the amount of tea, coffee and alcohol you drink

2. Be conscious of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago when my ankles and lower legs swelled up after a flight to Finland that I started to wear compression socks on planes. I’d been aware of DVT before but this brought home to me that I really needed to be more conscious of the affects flying can have on my body.

  • Wear compression socks or stockings during flights (available from pharmacies)
  • Walk around the cabin every few hours to stretch your legs
  • Regularly exercise your ankles and legs (check the ‘In-flight Health’ booklet in your seat pocket for recommended exercises)

3. Get some sleep

Sleeping on planes is never comfortable unless you’re at the pointy end of the aircraft but I find the best way to get a descent sleep is to:

  • Wear an eye mask and ear plugs
  • Keep warm – have a jacket or extra blanket handy in case you need it
  • Use a good neck pillow, not the thin ones provided by airlines
  • Tell the cabin crew if you don’t want to be disturbed for meals

4. General health and well-being

  • Eat small meals – you don’t have to eat everything that’s served up
  • During meals on long-haul flights snacks are usually available. These often include fruit – a great healthy option
  • Wear comfortable clothing and shoes
  • Always wear your shoes when visiting the toilets

5. Looking good for arrival

The de-pressurised cabin of the aircraft will dry your skin out in no time. To try and minimise the damage, try the following:

  • Regularly apply lip balm to keep your lips moist (lip balm also works well on your cuticles)
  • Use a hydrating facial spray with essential oils to stop your skin drying out
  • If you suffer from dry, scratchy eyes when flying, try using eye drops or an eye mist
  • Pack your toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush and lipstick in your carry-on bag.  A quick freshen up after meals and before landing will make you feel much better
Did you know? A recent small study* found that women’s skin surface hydration decreased rapidly during long distance flights. Skin capacitance decreased on the face and forearms, with most pronounced dehydration on the cheeks where it decreased by 37 per cent.

And then there’s jet lag

Jetlag is the term used to describe the uncomfortable aftermath of a long haul flight through several time zones, where your circadian rhythms (internal clock) become out of sync.

While there is no single therapy for combating jetlag, there are a number of ways you can minimise the impact, according to Dr. Natalie Gray, National Medical Director at The Travel Doctor-TMVC.

I tend not to suffer from jet lag when I arrive in Europe, it only seems to hit when I return home. Perhaps it’s the realisation that my holiday is now over that brings on jet lag for me! To minimise the effects of jet lag, many of the same precautions mentioned above also apply.

“As soon as you board the flight, set your clock to the local time of your destination,” Dr. Gray says. “Try to get some sleep on the flight, depending on what time it will be in your new locale and remember to:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Avoid excess alcohol and caffeine – it will worsen jetlag by contributing to dehydration and give your body stimulants that will throw out natural sleep patterns
  • Make sure you walk around the cabin to keep the body moving otherwise that heavy feeling will follow you off the plane
  • When you land at your destination, do some light exercise like going for a casual stroll or a relaxing swim that will get the body moving again. If it’s day time get some exposure to sunlight. “

In my own experience, I recommend adjusting to the time zone at your destination as soon as possible. If you arrive during the day, as hard as it may be, I suggest you stay awake until bed time. A sleep during the day will put your body out of ‘whack’ even more and it will take you longer to get over jetlag.

If you don’t think you can manage that, choose a flight that will arrive in the evening or at night time so that you can go straight to bed on arrival.

Wishing you happy, healthy and safe travels

*Source: Guéhenneux, S. Gardinier, S. Morizot, F. Le Fur1and, I. Tschachle, E. (2012) ‘Skin surface hydration decreases rapidly during long distance travel’ Skin Research Technology Vol. 18(2) Pp. 238-240