Harvard Men's Health Watch

Air travel and your health

Up, up, and away

It sounds simple enough, but flying has never been easy for ordinary men. Needless to say, the terrible events of September 11, 2001, have made air travel more worrisome and difficult than ever. But while you can't do much to prevent terrorism and crashes, you can do quite a lot to protect yourself from the more common health hazards of flying.

The problems

Modern jetliners cruise at altitudes that dwarf Mount Everest, so they must control the air pressure and oxygen content of the cabin. They do a great job, but the pressure and oxygen levels are substantially below those at sea level. Cabin air is also much drier than normal, and because it's in limited supply, it's constantly recirculated. Space is also at a premium, so passengers are squeezed into tight seats with only narrow aisles between them. And the chief advantage of air travel also poses a medical challenge: Passengers often arrive in new time zones with their biological clocks on their old time. Add the disorienting effects of motion, concerns about cosmic radiation, stress, and limited medical resources on the plane, and you'll see why air travel can be a challenge to your health. With simple preparations, though, it's a challenge you can meet.

Here are some of the medical issues confronting today's air traveler.

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