As exciting as those first steps onto a plane can be for most
people, there are a range of health issues that can crop up before
or during a flight. Whether you’re worried about jet lag, the
flight itself, or are unsure about a pre-existing condition that
could prevent you from travelling, we’ve come up with a guide
to help you on your way.
Airline Restrictions For Flying
Airlines have the right to refuse passengers entry onto a flight
if they have pre-existing conditions that could get worse or have
dangerous consequences during the flight. Airlines will prevent you
from travelling if they think this is the case by seeking clearance
from a medical advisor. If a passenger is suffering from a disease
or a physical or mental condition that could affect the safety of
their fellow passengers, crew and/or aircraft then they will not be
able to travel.
Normally, airlines will refuse travel in the following
- Newborn babies less than 48 hours old, or longer in case of
- Pregnant women after the 36th week, or 32nd week if they are
expecting a multiple pregnancy.
- If the passenger experiences breathlessness, angina or chest
pains at rest.
- If the passenger has had a recent myocardial infarction,
stroke, surgery or injury where trapped air could be present e.g.
abdominal trauma, gastrointestinal surgery, brain surgery or eye
- If the passenger has a severe chronic respiratory disease,
unresolved pneumothorax or sickle cell anaemia.
- Passengers with infections of the sinuses, ear, nose or
eustachian tubes, or those suffering from increased intracranial
- If there is evidence of a psychotic illness, unless it is fully
- If the passenger has an active ‘communicable
disease’ (see below).
This list isn’t exhaustive, so make sure that you ask your
GP or someone at a local Superdrug Travel Clinic if you’re
unsure. The regulations will also vary from airline to airline so,
if in doubt, speak to someone from the airline’s medical
department to confirm.
You’re no more likely to catch an infectious disease on
board an aircraft than you are on any other mode of transport.
Still, it’s possible to catch something from as little as a
cough, sneeze or handshake from another passenger if you’re
sitting close by. If an airline suspects that a passenger has an
actively contagious disease, they have the right to refuse that
person entry to the flight.
It’s important for all passengers with an active illness,
especially a fever, that they delay travelling until they are fully
recovered in order to reduce the risk of passing infection. In
cases like chicken pox where the rash remains for days after
recovery, even recently recovered passengers should carry a letter
from their GP saying that they are no longer contagious.
Here’s a guideline for the communicability periods (the time
when a patient is infectious to other people) of some common
infections, but always ask the advice a doctor first or at your
local Superdrug Travel Clinic if you’re unsure. During these
periods, airlines have the right to refuse passengers entry to a
- Chicken pox: 1-2 days before ‘onset’ (the first appearance of the signs or symptoms), up until all the spots have dried and crusted, which tends to be about 5 days after. This is longer in patients who have been immunocompromised.
- Influenza: up to 3-5 days from onset in adults, and 7 days in young children.
- Measles: usually from up to 4 days before onset until 4 days after the rash has fully cleared.
- Mumps: up to 7 days before and until 9 days after the onset of ‘parotitis’ (inflammation of the glands). With mumps, you’re most infectious 2 days before and for 4 days after onset.
- Whooping cough: this illness is highly communicable in the early ‘catarrhal stage’ and at the beginning of the ‘paroxysmal’ cough stage, which lasts for the first 2 weeks. After treatment, infectiousness decreases until the third week when it should be gone.
- Rubella: this is highly contagious, with the communicable period lasting from at least 1 week before and 4 days after the onset of the rash.
- Tuberculosis: after TB has been successfully treated, it is contagious for at least another 2 weeks.
SPECIAL NOTICE: With more and more cases of tuberculosis worldwide, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised that there is now a slight but very real chance of it being transmitted during air flights. Records show that TB infections have only been transmitted in flights that lasted at least 8 hours long, and that the risk is greater when lots of passengers are coming from countries with high levels of the disease. Luckily, there has yet to be a case of active TB being the direct result of travel on a commercial flight. But, WHO are still recommending that all infectious TB patients should not fly for at least 2 weeks after effective treatment. In cases where the patient has a strand of multidrug resistant TB, then they should not fly until they have medical evidence to say that they are no longer infectious.
Fear Of Flying
For nine million unlucky Britons, the prospect of an upcoming
flight is very unwelcome indeed. Often, this fear is rooted in a
particularly bad experience of a rough flight or because of news
coverage of plane crashes or hijacks. Anyone can develop a fear of
flying, and sometimes the anxiety is so great that
passenger’s experience is ruined completely by panic attacks
or can even stop them wanting to make the trip. We know how
daunting this prospect can be, but it shouldn’t mean you have
to miss that holiday of a lifetime or any exciting opportunities
with work. Hopefully, by following our top tips for travelling with
a fear of flying, you should be able to put your mind at rest.
5 top tips for nervous fliers:
- Try to distract yourself by watching in-flight movies, reading
a good book or by talking to other passengers. Aim to make a new
friend on every trip!
- Ask one of the friendly nurses at your local Superdrug Travel
Clinic for some advice and reassurance about air travel whilst
you’re there for travel vaccinations.
- Don’t be shy about telling the cabin crew how you feel:
they’ve had years of experience with people just like you,
and can help put you at ease by explaining any funny noises or
bumps during the flight.
- If your doctor decides its OK, then sometimes a mild sedative
can help. Remember: these drugs don’t mix with alcohol, so
lay off the drinks cart if you have any!
In more extreme cases, research shows that counselling or
cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is helpful for people who want
to learn different strategies for overcoming their fears. Elaine
Foreman is a clinical psychologist who runs an independent course
called ‘Freedom to Fly’ (phone: 0208 4593428 or email:
firstname.lastname@example.org). Heathrow and Manchester airports also
offer ‘Aviatour’ courses (phone: 01252 793250) and
Virgin Active have a fantastic ‘Flying without Fear’
course for £255.
There’s always a long list of things you can’t take with you onto an aircraft cabin, but if you need to take anything sharp or technically forbidden with you for medical reasons, be sure to bring proof with you that you need it from your GP. Things you might need to take on board include: hypodermic needles or syringes in cases of diabetes or an allergy. With the exception of hypodermic needles, you will usually be asked to place these items into your hold luggage, and without the appropriate evidence it could be destroyed. Always find out what your airline’s policies are, but for general advice on fitness, travel and specific health issues, British Airways Medical Service offers a great booklet called ‘Your Patient and Air Travel’.
In-Flight Health Issues
There are a few things to be mindful of while travelling by air
if you want to stay happy and healthy for your trip.
- Take care not to get dehydrated while on board your flight. The
air on board the aircraft takes very little moisture from outside
the cabin, especially at high altitudes, and can therefore be dry.
Bring a travel-sized moisturiser in your hand luggage to guard your
skin and lips against dryness, and try to wear glasses instead of
contact lenses to stop them irritating your eyes. Drink plenty of
water while you fly to stay hydrated, again especially if
you’re enjoying drinks with alcohol or caffeine!
- Keeping hydrated is also important to prevent cramps or deep
vein thrombosis (DVT) while flying for a long period of time.
Sitting still for so long in a cramped seat can be uncomfortable,
so try to take a walk or two along the aisle in long trips and
stretch your legs whenever you can.
- The same goes for DVT, which has the potential to be more
dangerous: drink lots of water, keep moving, and speak to a
pharmacist about special compression stockings to reduce ankle
swelling and minimise the risk of DVT happening. Check out our
useful guide for preventing DVT when travelling (link).
- ‘Air rage’ is a little known term that’s used
to describe instances of psychological or physical violence from
passengers when flying. This can happen for several reasons:
personal problems, flight delays, lack of sleep, heavy drinking, or
clashes with fellow passengers. On long haul flights, it can also
be triggered by nicotine withdrawal in heavy smokers, in which case
nicotine gum or substitutes are a good thing to bring in your hand
luggage. E-cigarettes are often banned by specific airlines, like
EasyJet. Passengers should also avoid excessive drinking on flights
if they are prone to aggression. In extreme cases, aircrafts have
landed prematurely to eject passengers who are causing a
disturbance in the aircraft, and legal action can been taken.
Airlines use a ‘warning’ system much like the
yellow/red card at a football match, and can refuse to let those
passengers board their other flights. Don’t spoil the flight
for everyone else by doing all you can to avoid air rage.
There’s nothing more frustrating after a long-awaited trip
than losing the next few days recovering from it. Jet lag happens
when we experience a change to our ‘Circadian Rhythm’
which controls our normal sleeping patterns. When we travel
into different time zones, we usually need at least one day per
time zone before our sleeping habits adjust to the local time and
we’re back to our usual, chirpy selves. Some people find they
get less jet lagged when travelling westward, but travelling in
either direction can cause problems. Typically, jet lag causes
tiredness, confusion, loss of appetite, nausea, and changes to your
normal bowel movements and sleeping habits. Thankfully, there are
some things you can do to minimise your chances of getting it too
- Travelling if you’re already tired will only make it
worse, so make sure you’ve had a proper rest before you set
off! On the flight, get as much sleep as you possibly can and try
to leave the first day of your trip free from anything too
important. Be prepared to be sleepy in the evenings for the first
- Jet lag tablets are useful if you need help for the first few nights to sleep. Research has shown that taking these after arrival will help you wake up and stay alert on the next day, however these won’t speed up your body clock’s adjustment to a new time zone.
- Like most things, a jet lag will only be made worse by a
hangover! Try to avoid heavy drinking the night before, and drink
plenty of water on and after the flight.
- Take a stopover flight in the middle of your journey. This will
help you adjust to the time change more gradually, and you’ll
be less tired when you finally get there.
- Follow the sun’s example! Try to familiarise yourself
with the new time zone by keeping in tune with the natural light
patterns. Why not sleep for the first few nights with your curtains
open to wake up with the morning birds?
Above 2400 metres (8000 feet) is usually considered as
‘high altitude’, and travelling to places this high can
cause passengers some minor health problems. While you’re on
board the aircraft cabin, the air pressure is maintained well and
so altitude sickness symptoms during the flight are unusual.
However, even the healthiest passengers can experience symptoms
after arriving at airports like those in the Himalayas and the
Andes, which are well above 2400 metres. Symptoms of altitude
sickness can include headaches, nausea, difficulty breathing and
confusion. If you have a pre-existing cardiac or respiratory
problem, then you’re also more likely to have these symptoms
both during and after the flight. Sometimes though, even being
aware of this can help the passenger to stay calm and feel better.
Drinking plenty of water will also help, as dehydration and any
strenuous activity will make the symptoms worse. For those with
serious pre-existing hypoxic respiratory disease, you should always
talk to your GP or someone at your local Superdrug Travel Clinic
for specialist medical advice before flying. They should be able to
estimate whether or not you’ll have any problems, and arrange
for extra oxygen supplies for the flight or on arrival for you.
Hopefully, this little guide has helped you with everything you needed to know before jet setting off across the world. But, if not, pop down to one of our specialist Superdrug Travel Clinics for some more expert advice on all things related to travel healthcare.