Flying Considerations: How to prevent getting ill after flying

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There are many possible causes of the increased risk of illness after flying, and in this article we are going to investigate the possible causes, dispel some myths and also give you some hints as to what you can do about it.

Is recirculated air a problem?

One of the strongest myths that surrounds air travel and illness is that of recirculated air, and the fact that we breathe in other peoples germs and bugs for the duration of the flight. The World Health Organisation back in 2005 reported that the risk of contracting respiratory infections on a flight was no greater than a bus or a train. The well acclaimed Journal the Lancet in 2007 also reported that a modern plane exchanges air fully 15-20 times in an hour making the air fresher than what you would breath in your home and office.

So whilst the freshness of the air may not be an issue, one interesting point to note is that the circulated air is very dry. One theory is that the dry air can make small fissures inside your nasal cavity, making it easier for viruses to get in.


One of the biggest causes of transmission of problematic bugs is the surfaces we come into contact with on planes, particularly the toilet area, seats down the isles, seat trays and so forth. These areas and surfaces are probably the highest risk sites to people transmitting bugs from themselves onto an area that is then available for people to touch not just on your flight but also on numerous flights to come.

In my research into certain bacteria, I was surprised to realise how long certain bugs can live on surfaces. One bug that I was contracted with called Clostridium Difficile, probably from a hospital visit back in 2005 is said to last on surfaces for months at a time.

The trouble is we have no idea what might be festering inside or on the surfaces of those that travel on our flight or have travelled in previous flights. Going solely by the amount of clients I see with gastrointestinal issues and those that test positive for bacterial and parasite infections, that are known to spread through fecal to oral transmission, it is something that would easily spread on the common surfaces of the plane.

Travel Stress

For many of us travel can be particularly stressful, whether this is caused by changes in circadian rhythm, fear of flying, consumption of inflammatory foods and beverages, general family stress or something else, the negative effects high stress can have on immune function have to be a consideration. On the flip side many people suffer with low cortisol output, often caused by long term stress of a suppression of the adrenal glands. Both high levels or low levels can have negative consequences on the overall function of the immune system.

High cortisol and immune function

Glucocorticoid steroid medications are used commonly to suppress the immune system and/or decrease inflammation. Glucocorticoids are cortisol-based medications. Even physiological elevations above the norm have been shown to cause immune suppressive effects.

Whilst short-term spikes in cortisol are unlikely to cause a problem, in fact this is the way the body was designed to react to acute stress responses. The trouble is we live in a world where we experience chronic stress situations causing our stress hormones to be elevated throughout the day. Quite often the immune function damage before flying is done well before you get on the plane.

Low cortisol and immune function

Low cortisol on the other hand is also not a good thing. Whether the low adrenal output is being caused by suppression or the results of chronic stress over a very long time, the fact is that low cortisol will then prevent your body’s ability from mounting sufficient anti-inflammatory or immune responses against invaders that we come into contact with, particularly when travelling.

What can you do to prevent illness when travelling?

Basics First

Firstly, start to adapt your lifestyle before your holiday, a holiday is not an opportunity to collapse after 6months of stress at work, spending the first few days of your holiday ill as your body starts to relax and the rest stressing about going back to work.

Have a go at my Online Health Questionnaire, and if you are scoring high on any of the nutrition and lifestyle assessment sub categories in section A then this is likely to be increasing your overall stress load making you more prone to illness. In section B you will also be able to see if you score high in either of the adrenals high or low categories, giving you an idea of whether you do have possible imbalances with cortisol output.

Before doing anything specific around your flight to support immune function make sure you are getting the basics right first. Make sure you are supporting your health the other 48 weeks of the year that you are not on holiday.

Tips for the flight

  1. Take some antibacterial wipes and gels with you on the plane. No need to be obsessive, but a wipe of your hands, TV controls or screen and your tray would be a sensible plan.
  2. Avoid your hands going into your mouth or other areas that might expose your body to a greater risk of infection. It is your hands that will be exposed the most to germs, so biting your finger nails, picking your nose are probably not a great idea.
  3. Practice diaphragmatic breathing or meditation, especially if flying makes you anxious or stressed.
  4. If you are prone to infection / illness when travelling try adding in a mushroom and nutrient formula to help support cellular defenses and support overall immune function. One product I really like is by a company called Innate and the product called Immune Response Formula. This is a mix of certain mushroom extracts, Vit C, Vit D, astragalus root extract and arabinogalactan, forming a potent acute immune response formula.

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