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How to stay well on a long-haul flight

Aleney de Winter

Safeguard your wellbeing with our health hacks for flying.

woman at airport looking out window
woman at airport looking out window

No matter how glamourous your destination may be, the long-haul flight to get there can be a challenge, especially if you’ve been crammed into an economy-class seat. Seriously, beyond the temporary discomfort of squeezing into a 40-cm space, long-haul flying can take a toll on your physical and mental wellbeing. But the good news is that you don't need to become a health guru to avoid starting your holiday with aching joints and a sudden case of the sniffles.  

Boost your body 

Staying healthy has as much to do with your body’s ability to deal with germs as it is the proliferation of snuffling passengers on board a flight. Offer extra support to your immune system before you travel by adopting a healthy diet before you fly. Getting a little exercise before your flight, preferably outdoors in the fresh air, is also beneficial, as it will help boost vitamin D levels, which can improve sleep quality. If you can't get outside, even a few minutes of stretching or light exercise in the airport can be worthwhile. 

Choose your seat wisely 

All seats are not created equal when it comes to your health. If you can afford it, it’s worth paying for extra legroom. If that isn't an option, keep an eye on seat availability in the lead up to your flight or check in early to see if more seat choices have become available. It’s worth noting that window seats are statistically proven to have significantly fewer germs than those in the aisles as the presence of a wall on one side decreases the likelihood of coming into contact with any nasty airborne particles from nearby passengers.  

Get rid of aeroplane germs 

A pack of sanitising wipes can be your best friend on a flight. To reduce the spread of germs and bacteria, wipe down surfaces such as armrests, seat belts and buckles, touchscreen entertainment systems, seat pockets and your tray table – which, according to a microbiologist engaged by Travelmath, contains as many as eight times more germs than the toilet flush button. It’s also important to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently and use hand sanitiser often, especially before eating. Oh and stop touching your face, because you are far more likely to get sick from germs entering your eyes and nose than your mouth. If you have a serious itch to scratch or need to change contact lenses, douse your hands in hand sanitiser before you do. 

Ditch couture for comfort 

Wearing your best designer clothes in a bid for an upgrade demonstrates admirable commitment, but it’s unlikely to make a difference. Instead, wear comfortable clothing made with natural fabrics that breathe, such as cotton, silk, wool or linen, in easy-to-remove layers, because even if you are off to Tahiti, it can get chilly on a plane.  

Choose the right footwear 

Wear closed shoes and pack a pair of slippers and socks to wear after takeoff to avoid swelling. Never go barefoot, as it can not only pose an additional danger in an emergency, but plane floors are generally pretty dirty. In fact, plane cabins are relatively unhygienic places in general, so a post-flight shower and a change of clothes is always a good idea.  

Man on plane drinking water

Wear a mask 

After the last few pandemic-paralysed years, no one wants to wear a mask anymore. But while they are no longer mandatory on most airlines, they do provide an added layer of protection from air-borne viruses and are always a good preventative measure to consider. 

Avoid ear pain 

The sudden elevation of air pressure on takeoff can cause ear pain. If your ears hurt when you are flying, it’s important to equalise the pressure. If you struggle to equalise, strategies such as chewing gum, swallowing frequently, using earplugs, or yawning can help. If you're travelling with a baby, bottle or breast feeding, or a dummy, can assist little ears. 

Be good to your gut 

Airlines generally provide all meals and snacks during long-haul flights but be mindful about what you consume. According to Boyle’s law, gasses expand as air pressure decreases, which can impact digestion. To up your chances of a happy gut, avoid eating a big meal before you fly and pack your own treats. Sugary and processed foods can cause a slump in energy, while nuts, seeds and dark chocolate can help keep you adequately fueled throughout your flight, without the digestive drama.   

Stay hydrated 

The air in most aeroplane cabins is drier than the Sahara Desert, so keeping your fluids up is imperative. Dehydration can cause a headache, sore throat, exacerbate the symptoms of jetlag and weaken the immune system, making you more vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections. To prepare for your flight, increase your water intake two days before you fly. Bring a refillable water bottle that the flight attendants can top up for you and aim to drink at least 2.5 litres of water over a 10-hour flight. Skip caffeinated and alcoholic beverages, which can speed up the process of dehydration, as well as carbonated drinks, as these can increase bloating by expanding gases in the stomach. Instead, BYO herbal tea bags.  

Bend and stretch 

Sitting on a plane for long periods can cause stiffness and cramping which can increase the risks of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Immobility is a contributing factor to DVT, so give your body a little TLC by stretching those legs, back and neck regularly. Take regular walks up and down the aisle, do simple stretches in your seat or bust out some lunges in the galley to help improve your circulation and prevent blood clots. Wearing compression socks is also recommended on longer flights to further minimise the risk of developing DVT. 

Get some sleep 

When you don't get enough sleep, your immune system can take a serious hit, leaving you vulnerable to all sorts of pesky germs and illnesses. Try to get a good night’s sleep in the days leading up to your flight as sleeping on a plane can sometimes be challenging. On your flight, frequent short naps may be useful in reducing fatigue and preventing jet lag, so increase your chances of a mid-air snooze by turning off electronic devices and seat-back screens an hour before sleep time to avoid sleep disrupting blue light. Additionally, eye masks, noise-cancelling headphones and a comfortable travel pillow can improve your chances of catching some ZZZs. 

Travelling soon? Consider nib Travel Insurance and get a quote

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A portrait of Aleney de Winter smiling at the camera

Aleney de Winter

An award-winning writer and photographer with an unquenchable inclination to wander and a passion for the world of wellness, Aleney de Winter was a curious teen with an adventurous spirit when she first set off to explore. Three decades on and a specialist travel, food, parenting and wellness writer, the only thing she loves more than new adventures is her equally itchy-footed kids