This Is What Really Happens To The Human Body During A Flight

Humans weren't designed to fly. Yet every day around the globe millions of people find themselves high above the earth in a tin can hurtling through the air. Ever wonder how our bodies adapt to that? Read on to find out!

June 16, 2017
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Ever since the first commercial flight a little over 100 years ago, airplane passengers have felt the effects that this type of travel has on the human body. We’ve all heard tales of heart attacks, strokes, and things like hyperventilation, but those are extreme cases.

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We’ve always been curious about what being that high up in the air does to our bodies. Flight attendants and pilots do it for a living and they seem to be okay. But what is happening to their bodies that we can’t see?

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Dehydration is a well-known issue on flights, but I never realized just how bad it was until my then-2-year-old son and I took a trip to Georgia. I was upset because he dumped an entire 16 ounce bottle of water on his jeans.

They were so wet that I could wring them out. Out of desperation, I removed them from his body and hung them on the seat to dry. I checked his pants two hours later when we landed in Atlanta, and to my astonishment, they were bone dry! Not a drop of water remained.

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Wondering what else happens to your body when you fly? It turns out that jet lag is the least of our worries. Here are some crazy things that happen to your body when you’re up in the air.

1. You get deprived of oxygen.

Do you ever feel light headed when you fly? Do you have trouble concentrating or find it hard to take a deep breath? Do you get tired easily?

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It may be only a small difference, but oxygen levels in the plane’s pressurized air can be lower, which can lead to minor oxygen deprivation in some people. The cabins are pressurized to simulate a 6,000- to 8,000-foot elevation on the ground, and at those altitudes, your blood absorbs less oxygen.

Additionally, more issues surrounding low oxygen levels can occur during longer flights, when you’re seated for an extended period. Your blood doesn’t get the opportunity to move around as much, and this reduces its oxygen levels.

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How do you get more oxygen? Try to get up and walk around every two hours or so to keep everything moving.

2. You get dehydrated.

Flight attendants constantly remind you to drink water while in flight, but do you know the reason why? Humidity levels are considered healthy at around 50 to 60 percent, but a plane’s cabin can dip as low as a 10 percent. That’s drier than a desert!

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This can lead you to get pretty dehydrated. This happens because water likes to go from places of high concentration (your body and mouth) to low concentration (the plane’s cabin). If you don’t replace those lost liquids you can end up feeling dizzy and tired, with a headache and dry lips, eyes, and mouth.

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Make sure that you drink lots of water while you’re in the air, and stay away from beverages that will further dehydrate you, such as tea, caffeinated soda, or coffee.

3. Your taste buds go numb.

Ever notice that everything tastes bland (or the same) when you’re in flight? You’re right! A study in 2010 commissioned by Lufthansa found that our taste buds go numb during a flight.

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Dry air not only affects your internal hydration levels, but it can also evaporate nasal mucus. Complicating matters even further is the effect of cabin pressure on your membranes. It can cause them to swell, which, combined with low levels of nasal mucus, can prevent you from smelling foods.

Your sense of smell is necessary for you to be able to taste; without it, your taste buds are compromised. It’s no wonder that airlines create their meals on the ground and then test them in the air!

4. Your ears and belly hurt.

You’re about to take off, and the kind old lady next to you asks, “Want a piece of gum, honey? It’ll help your ears.” Why do your ears hurt when you take off and land?

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Air pressure is to blame. As air expands in your ear canals it causes increased pressure to build within your ear and cause pain. You can alleviate a lot of the pressure by chewing gum, swallowing, yawning, or holding your nose and blowing gently.

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Does your stomach feel a little queasy? You might be surprised to know that this motion sickness actually started in your ear as well. Your sense of balance is determined mostly by the communication of your inner ears and your eyes. Your inner ears detect motion such as turning, flipping, and going forward and backward.

Problems can occur in flight when your central nervous system receives conflicting messages from these two organs. For example, say you hit turbulence and you’re bumping all over the place. Your inner ears detect it and send a message to your brain.

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Your brain, however, has received a conflicting message from your eyes, which are sending the message that they’re looking at a peaceful, non-turbulent cabin. This confusion could cause you to feel air sick.

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Do you find that you’re super sensitive to motion and get nauseated at the slightest bump? Experts suggest that you choose seats that are situated over the wings; this is the steadiest part of the plane.

5. Your skin gets damaged.

It may never have occurred to you that you can get a sunburn while you’re inside an airplane, but at high altitude, more than 50 percent of UVA rays can come through the unprotected glass and damage your skin.

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In fact, studies show that pilots are twice as likely to develop melanoma, which is the most serious form of skin cancer. Spending 56 minutes in the air is equivalent to 20 minutes in a tanning bed. The next time you fly, slather on that sunscreen!

6. Air pressure wreaks havoc.

As a plane rises in the air, the pressure in the cabin drops. This causes the gas in your body to go a little crazy. As the plane goes higher, the gas in your stomach and intestines expands, making your stomach feel yucky and cramped. Experts recommend that you don’t try to hold your gas in.

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This could lead to further pain, bloating, or even worse. It’s a good idea before a flight to avoid eating anything that normally gives you gas (common culprits are beans, dairy, and cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts). And skip the carbonated beverages on the flight.

Your belly isn’t the only thing that’s affected by gas when you’re in the air. Just like air pressure causes trouble for our ears, it can also affect your teeth and sinuses (ouch!)

7. You can catch a cold.

Ever notice that you often get sick a couple of days after you fly? A study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research found that your risk of catching a cold is more than 100 times higher when you’re on a plane than when you’re grounded.

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It’s a common belief that the recirculated air is what gets people sick, but a study showed that there was really no difference in the health, post flight, of people who were breathing recirculated air versus fresh air. Instead, the studies found that it’s the small confined space that causes people to catch viruses.

Germs are forever present, and in a small space like an airplane cabin, there is a greater likelihood of coming in contact with them. We all know that when someone sneezes in tight quarters, your chances of getting sick are increased.

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To combat this, experts suggest that you wash your hands in flight (or as soon as you get off the flight), avoid touching your face during a flight, and use antibacterial sanitizer whenever necessary.

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