Traveller’s Health: 3-part series. Part 1 – Health problems during Air/Sea Travel*

Air and sea travel could cause minor health problems and travellers need to be ready to cope with them to ensure a pleasant flight/sail. In order to be prepared for travel, the following points need to be checked in advance.


a. Immunization and medicines:

Travellers should be well aware of immunization and vaccination requirements for travel to certain countries and back. This information can be accessed here. Proof of immunization needs to be carried while passing immigration or provided in advance while applying for visa in certain countries. Carry your medical supplies with you while travel, especially prescription meds should be carried in hand luggage along with doctor’s prescription letter.

b. Fitness for travel:

Fitness for travel depends on a number of factors. Presence of pacemakers need to be declared or notified to airline authorities. Certain medical conditions need to be reported while booking tickets because the airline has the authority to deny your boarding later when not informed in advance. Many shipping companies ask for a certificate of fitness to travel by sea for passengers over 75 years of age.
Air/Sea travel can have the following effects on travellers:


i. Hypoxia:

It is a medical condition in which a body or a body part becomes deprived of oxygen due to inadequate supply. During air travel, hypoxia may affect those who are heavy smokers because carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke reduces oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Symptoms include personality change, impaired judgement, poor mental and muscular coordination and memory impairment which is treated with administration of oxygen.

ii. Hyperventilation:

A more common problem while air travel is hyperventilation which may be described as inappropriate over-breathing. It is mostly caused by emotional stress and anxiety. This can be countered by re-breathing expired air (from a paper bag) and rhythmic slow breathing thereafter.

iii. Gas expansion:

Gas expansion is common among travellers who consume alcohol or carbonated fizzy drinks or by gas-producing food like beans, cabbages and curries. It also occurs in healthy travellers due to as silly a reason like a right waist band/belt. Moderate eating and drinking habits can control gas expansion.

iv. Dehydration:

Dry circulation of cabin air can causes dehydration and is one of the reasons why flight attendants often keep offering water to travellers. Water and juices are preferable to alcohol and fizzy drinks. Dryness of air might cause irritation in eyes among contact lens users.

v. Ear and sinus related effects:

During ascent, gas expansion may take place inside middle-ear cavities and sinuses which need to be vented out through the throat and nose which is normally called the ear-pop. But while the descent, ear discomfort is caused due to change of cabin pressure which can be quite painful and may not be avoided or countered as long as the cabin pressure is equalised with air pressure outside.

vi. Immobility:

Prolonged sitting during long flights can make feet and legs to swell (postural oedema) and is the reason why travellers are seen struggling to replace footwear the end of the flight. It is good to take frequent short walks during these long flying hours to ease up the tension in limbs and also prevents lack of blood circulation to legs that can lead to deep vein thrombosis (painful clotting of blood in claves and nerve ends in legs).

vii. Jet lag:

Air travel can cause disruption and de-synchronization of many physiological and psychological rhythms of human body which are governed by environmental cues like clock hour, temperature, day and night. Rapid passage across several zones outstrips the ability of environmental factors to readjust these rhythms, causing ‘jet lag’ to occur. It can be coped by sleeping during air travel, avoiding heavy meals and alcohol and avoiding important meetings in the first 24-hour window after travel.

viii. Sea sickness:

With the introduction of ship stabilizers that control rapid movement of vessels, sea sickness is quite rare these days. But in case of small carriers and cruises, it could still occur. Nausea, headache, head-spin and chills can occur very commonly. Although medication proves useful very rarely, it is best to say prevention is better than cure. Light meal, drinking only enough fluids and electrolytes can help ease the body for sea travel. Getting used to being outdoors and getting used to sea breeze can also considerably reduce nausea.

ix. Heat illnesses:

Most common heat-related illnesses during travel is due to imbalance of body temperature due to internal factors like food and water consumption, age, build and medical conditions and also due to external factors like climate and pressure. Heat stroke, exhaustion, water and salt deficiency, oedema, cramps and syncope are the most common heat illnesses. In most cases, these problems can be prevented by precautionary dietary and healthcare methods. Skin related heat illnesses will be covered in Part 2 of this 3-part series.

x. Cold climates:

Hypothermia is very common among travellers to countries of extremely cold climate. It is essential to carry thermal clothing appropriate to the country of travel. In case of cold injury, chronic and acute accidental hypothermia may occur which might even cause frostbite and immersion foot. 
*- referenced from Traveller’s Health: How to Stay Healthy Abroad? – By Dr. Richard Dawood

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