Whether for business or pleasure, the excitement of a trip can quickly be stifled when you arrive overly tired, sniffling, coughing, or headaching. Although airplanes have high quality HEPA air filters, circulating air while taxiing and the sheer proximity to so many people (and their coughs, sneezes, etc.) make airplanes (and airports) an area where airborne illness can spread easily. Last year I flew nearly 60 flights, including many transcon and international, and stayed healthy and energetic throughout. Through a few simple pre- and during- flight protocols, you can ensure your body is optimized to reduce risk of illness and fatigue.
Ensuring your immune system is in full-gear before you fly will help prevent any issues. I start taking 500-1,000mg of Vitamin C a day, 3 days before I fly. This can build up your immune system before it is exposed to any threats.1 During the winter or any other time I haven’t had adequate sun exposure, I will add Vitamin D3. I continue this during and for a few days post-flight.
Drink Coffee in the Local Time of Your Destination
This will go along way when you are crossing time zones. If you can avoid coffee or other caffeine, that is probably the best option. If you need some to get you through the day, adjust yourself by drinking it at your usual time in the time zone of your destination. i.e. If you are flying from New York to Los Angeles and usually drink coffee at 9am ET, try and hold off until noon, 9am PT. This will help your body adjust to the local time before you get there.
Airplane air is exceptionally dry. This because of the high-altitudes, where moisture content is somewhere between low and nonexistent. The dryness can be bad for sinuses and break down mucous barriers, making it easier to catch bacteria and viruses that can be present.2 Pack a water bottle and fill it whenever possible. During the flight, drink a glass (or more) of water anytime the flight crew offers. A travel size nasal saline spray could also be beneficial for long flights or anyone susceptible to a very dry respiratory system.
Skip the Alcohol
When on a long layover or long flight, it can be tempting to relax with a drink, but the myriad negative side effects make this a key way to stay healthy. It will dehydrate you, worsen sleep, and weaken your immune system.
For shorter flights, pack your own snacks like fruits, nuts, or muesli. Pouched tuna is also a great protein option. Fresh vegetables may be lacking, so a greens supplement like Amazing Grass can give you a bit of insurance. They have individual packs, which are super easy to travel with and mix with water anywhere.
On the flight, ask for a healthier option. Most US carriers have several snack options available to passengers in the premium cabins, like plain almonds or a banana, and flight attendants will provide them if you ask politely.
If you’re eating in the terminal, follow basic healthy eating principles, which is easier said than done. Look for whole grains and vegetables. Avoid salt because of the dehydration and fried foods because they are bad for you.
Stretch and Exercise
Doing basic stretches during flight will help reduce physical fatigue by promoting circulation and limiting stiffness. On a layover, don’t just sit around. Walk the terminal and do some basic exercises like push ups and squats.
- Van Straten M, Josling P. Preventing the common cold with a vitamin C supplement: a double-blind, placebo-controlled survey. Advan Ther. 2002 May-Jun;19(3):151-9.
- Nagda NL, Hodgson M. Low relative humidity and aircraft cabin air quality. Indoor Air. 2001;11(3):200-14.