Is Your Journey Really Necessary?
The Dangers of Flying

Vernon Coleman

Airlines claim that the statistics show that air travel is one of the safest ways to move around.

If you only consider the risk of crashing then flying is pretty safe - statistically speaking.

(If you are in a plane which doesn't crash then flying is very safe. Of course, the corollary is also true: if you are in a plane which crashes then flying is very dangerous indeed.)

But falling out of the sky isn't the only way that aeroplanes can damage your health. And the airlines only count the people who die or fall seriously ill while in their aeroplanes. They don't count the travellers who fall ill after they have left the airport.

There is, for example, the risk of developing a deep vein thrombosis. This is not a newly discovered hazard. I have written about this many times over the last twenty years. All that has happened recently is that a few journalists have discovered the problem and made it fashionable.

Deep vein thromboses are commoner in economy class simply because the seats there are so close together that it is difficult to move one's legs.

The risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is greater in passengers travelling in economy class, who are crammed into seats that would be a tight fit for an anorexic twelve-year-old. To reduce the risk try clenching your calf muscles at regular intervals to stimulate blood circulation. Don't cross your legs. Walk about frequently. Also, wriggle your feet and massage your lower legs and ankles. Avoid socks and knee-high stockings with tight elastic. And make sure that you drink plenty of water. Avoid caffeine and alcoholic drinks as these can dehydrate the body.

Next there is the problem that the air on aeroplanes is a lending library of germs. In my book Superbody I discussed the risks created by the fact that many airlines constantly recirculate dirty air. I confess I found this evidence so alarming that although I used to fly a couple of times every month it is now nearly ten years since I've been on an aeroplane. I would be extremely reluctant to fly again.

I realise that there are risks with all forms of transport but airlines are so dishonest and so uncaring of the welfare of their customers that I simply don't trust them. The air is polluted, the food is inedible, the delays inexplicable and incomprehensible, the overcrowding uncomfortable and the staff invariably rude and unhelpful.

Airports are even worse.

Here are some more health hazards associated with flying:

1.The easiest way to get tuberculosis is to board an aeroplane and simply breathe in the recycled air. Other bugs are commonly redistributed among the passengers. If there is anyone on board with a cold or flu there's a chance that you'll get it too. Passengers have caught multi drug-resistant tuberculosis (the most difficult type to treat - and therefore the most dangerous) while on a flight. At least 179 people are now known to have caught tuberculosis (and other potentially fatal diseases) while travelling on aeroplanes. The figure of 179 is almost certainly merely the tip of a very large iceberg.

How many air travellers develop infections which they do not realise they caught while flying? How often do doctors ask a patient with TB (or some other infectious disease) whether they have been in an aeroplane recently?

The most worrying aspect of all this is you don't need to sit close to an infected passenger to catch a disease. Healthy passengers have caught TB from another passenger sitting more than a dozen rows away. The problem is that all passengers breathe in contaminated air circulated within the aeroplane's air conditioning system.

In order to save money some airlines are cutting down on the fresh air used on aircraft. Instead of giving their passengers fresh air to breathe they simply recirculate the old air - together with all the infective organisms it contains. The recirculating of air is now a health hazard of which all air travellers should be aware.

Up until fairly recently aeroplanes used 100% fresh air. But providing air at 30,000 feet is an expensive business. Air has to be heated by the engine and then cooled by an airpack before it can be piped into the cabin.

Because airlines are always looking for ways to cut costs they have insisted the aircraft manufacturers redesign planes so that they use recirculated air.

One of the main reasons why people are so likely to fall ill after flying is that the passengers on board are likely to have come from many different parts of the world - and, therefore, to be carrying a wide variety of microbes and viruses.

We all tend to develop a certain level of immunity to infections which are common in the areas where we live. But we are much more susceptible to infections from other parts of the world. The result is that all of us are probably more likely to develop an infection on an aeroplane than just about anywhere else in the world (with the exception, of course, of hospitals.)

Catching infections isn't the only hazard associated with breathing used air. Second hand air has a higher concentration of carbon dioxide than fresh air and breathing in this second hand air causes tiredness and dizziness.

After an airline meal has been served many airlines routinely turn down the amount of fresh air feeding into a cabin and turn up the fans which recirculate the stale air. It is this stale air (rather than the food or the wine) which explains why many passengers tend to feel sleepy after an airline meal.

(There is, of course, an additional risk associated with this practice. The pilot and crew are inevitably all breathing the same, carbon dioxide heavy air as the passengers. I am surprised that crews have so little regard for their own safety that they allow airline bosses to get away with this reckless disregard for safety.)

It is, incidentally, worth remembering that it isn't only when the aircraft is in the air that passengers are at risk. These days many aircraft spend just as long sitting on the tarmac waiting to take off, or waiting to park after landing, as they do in the air. Your chances of acquiring a dangerous infection (as you sit breathing increasingly contaminated air) are therefore increased unnecessarily.

It isn't easy to avoid these problems. Wearing a mask to filter the air you breathe (though theoretically a good idea) would obviously make air travel pretty unbearable. (And you would probably get arrested too.)

Sitting towards the front of the plane may help a little since fresh air enters the first class and business cabins up to twenty times more often than it enters the standard or economy class cabin at the rear of the plane.

But even this isn't a sure-fire way to protect yourself: passengers at the front of the plane do catch infections.

Some people may laugh off the hazard of aircraft acquired infection (AAI) on the grounds that there seem to be risks associated with just about all activities which involve any sort of relationship between a human being and a piece of technology.

Such laughter would, however, be misplaced since the evidence clearly shows that modern technology often is dangerous and does pose many very real threats. The fact that there are many such hazards does not mean that any individual threat should not be taken seriously.

Others may try to find comfort and consolation in the belief that the authorities will soon clamp down and instruct airlines to behave more responsibly towards their customers - protecting them against AAI by installing better and safer air conditioning systems. Sadly, a quick trawl through recent medical history shows that there is no foundation for any such feeling. Only the naive, who wish to delude themselves in order to protect themselves from reality, could possibly believe that governments, industry watchdogs or allegedly independent authorities will provide the protection that is required.

Maybe the time has come when we should all question our travel plans a little more closely.

Is your next trip really necessary? And if the trip is necessary would it be possible to make the same journey by train or boat?

Here are some more health problems associated with flying:

* The radiation on a transatlantic flight is equivalent to what you would get during a chest X-ray.

* If the food or water doesn't poison you there is always a risk that you'll be beaten up by a fellow passenger who has drunk too much duty free booze.

* The dry air and high air pressure in an aircraft cabin can result in dehydration. The alcohol and coffee they are so determined to get you to drink will just make things worse. (Wouldn't you think airlines would, by now, know how best to make their passengers comfortable?)

* The stress of flying is so great that people who have high blood pressure or heart disease are more likely to have strokes and heart attacks while flying.

* Sitting down for long periods can make your feet and ankles swell - causing pain.

* When a plane goes up the gas in your lungs expands. If you have asthma the air may not be able to get out easily - causing chest pain. Smoking on planes can cause asthma. (And if you travel on airlines which allow smoking you are dramatically increasing your chances of developing cancer through passive smoking.)

* Pressure on your ear drum can cause pain. (Some people find that sucking a sweet or holding their nose and swallowing can help.)

* Gas expands in the intestine and can cause abdominal pains and exacerbate all the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. The pressure inside aircraft cabins is low and this means that any gas inside your intestines will expand. This can be very painful. Anxiety and rushed meals can make things worse. If you are sure that this is your problem move around; lean forward and then back or get up and walk about to try and allow the gas to move about in your intestines. Suck peppermints during your flight. Peppermint helps to reduce the pain and discomfort.

* Trapped gas in decaying teeth or fillings can cause toothache.

* The longer your flight the more likely you are to suffer problems with jet lag. Flights going eastwards usually seem to cause more problems than flights travelling westward.

* Avoid drinks such as tea and coffee which contain caffeine. Flying tends to cause dehydration and caffeine makes this worse. Drink lots of water or fruit juice during the flight - that's what pilots do to help them keep fresh and alert. Avoid alcohol - it's likely to make you feel worse.

* Use plenty of moisturising cream on your skin before flying. The dry air inside a plane can make the skin dry and itchy.

* Do not fly if you suffer from sinus troubles or have a cold. Some people who are susceptible to sinus problems find it helps to swallow frequently to even out the pressure in their sinuses. Others claim that if they feel pain developing in their ears or sinuses it helps if they hold their nose and blow very gently.

Airlines like to pretend that flying is safe.

Don't believe them. It isn't. Flying makes bull-fighting look risk free.

Health Secrets Doctors Share With Their Families by Vernon Coleman and Antoinette Coleman is packed with practical health advice. It's available from the bookshop on this website.

Copyright Vernon Coleman January 2007