What Happens to Your Body on an Airplane?
Tips & Tricks
What Happens to Your Body on an Airplane?

Travel can be hard on your body. Long-distance journeys, no matter what means of transport we choose, take their toll. We might experience fatigue, stress, and even motion sickness, though most of us wouldn’t consider such effects serious enough to warrant staying home. Flying is no different. When you fly at such high elevations for long periods of time, there can be side effects. Let’s take a look at what happens to our bodies on airplanes and what we might do to feel more comfortable.


Cup of water on  seat tray on airplane.
Credit: Eivaisla/ Shutterstock

Air humidity in an airplane is lower than many of us are used to on the ground. The levels vary according to the density of people, so first class might have a humidity of as little as 5%, compared to perhaps 15 to 20% in economy. A significant percentage of the air in the cabin is pulled in from outside. Such fresh air can have a humidity level of as little as 1%. Even though it’s mixed approximately 50:50 with recirculated ai,r which has a higher humidity, it still has a dehydrating effect on our bodies. This means you might experience a dry nose, dry skin, or dry lips. Low levels of relative humidity also contribute to a reduced sense of taste, so your regular Diet Coke might not taste the same.

So what can you do about the low humidity? First, if you have a choice, take a look at your plane: planes such as the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350 are better equipped for humidity than older models. Drink plenty of water during the flight – it will also help control any bloating you may experience. Also consider using eye drops, a nasal spray, and good moisturizer. If you wear contact lenses, you might find it more comfortable to switch to glasses for the duration of your flight.

Pressure Imbalances

View down center aisle of airplane showing backs on people in seats.
Credit: VanoVasaio/ Shutterstock

When a plane takes off or lands, you might experience discomfort in your ears. The condition is called ear barotrauma, and is the result of an imbalance in the air pressure in your middle ear and the air pressure in the airplane. The middle ear not only helps us to hear, it’s also where you’ll find the opening of the eustachian tube. If the air pressure is greater than that of your middle ear, this tube is designed to open so that the pressure can be equalized. But if you have a cold or blocked sinuses, this might not happen and you’ll feel pain when the pressure shifts during takeoff and landing. Babies are particularly susceptible as their eustachian tubes aren’t fully formed. In most cases, sucking a sweet, swallowing, or pinching your nose will alleviate the problem. In more serious cases, you’ll need to see your doctor if pain persists after you’ve disembarked.

Jet Lag

Row of airline seats with pillows.
Credit: Try_my_best/ Shutterstock

Jet lag occurs when our sleep patterns are disrupted when we fly across multiple time zones. Our bodies have built-in clocks, and our circadian rhythms help us sleep when it’s dark and be active during daylight hours. Long-haul flights can mess with this routine. Fly from New York City to London, for instance, and if you disembark at Heathrow at 9am, your body will still think it’s five hours earlier and crave the sleep it usually gets at 4am.

There are a few strategies you can employ to reduce the effects of jet lag. One is trying to adjust to the new time zone as quickly as possible. Set an alarm to wake up at the appropriate time and make sure to eat at local meal times. Drinking water during your flight helps, as caffeine and alcohol can make jet lag worse. Some studies suggest taking a melatonin supplement may help, but the results are inconclusive. Regardless, seek medical advice if this is something you’d like to explore. If planning a round-the-world trip, flying east to west is easier for your body to cope with than the other way around as you gain rather than lose time.

Deep Vein Thrombosis

Foot crossed over opposite leg, sticking out into aisle on airplane.
Credit: Iosif Gromadko/ Shutterstock

Many travelers might find that they have puffy ankles or swollen feet for a short time after a long-haul flight. That’s because being immobile for a long time isn’t good for your body. Sitting still for extended periods – whether in the air, on a bus, or even at home – impacts certain functions, such as the speed of blood flow. When your blood flow slows down, blood clots can form, causing deep vein thrombosis, which, though rare, can have potentially life-threatening ramifications. You can mitigate your risk by moving around the cabin at regular intervals and doing in-seat exercises, such as rotating your ankles or stretching out your legs. Often the airline’s in-flight magazine or entertainment system will have examples of a workout that you can do without getting up. Those who are particularly at risk of DVT can opt to wear compression socks to help reduce swelling.

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