Ear, Nose and Throat Specialists of Wisconsin

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Can Airplanes Make You Sick?

Looking for Ear, Nose and Throat care tips? Our doctors and staff share the latest developments in our blog.

It is a question asked ever since the first passengers shared a long flight.  Can flying in an airplane lead to more colds and sinus infections? 

While this is a hard question to answer in a scientific way, a group of researchers affiliated with John’s Hopkins University tried to look into the subject. In the largest study of its kind, they closely studied flight attendants and compared their overall sinus health with their time on the plane. Indeed, they found a direct correlation between sinus symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, and thick nasal discharge and the amount of days spent in air travel. 

There are several reasons air travel may have a negative influence on sinus health: 

  • Airplane cabin air supply contains multiple contaminants that carry potential harm to the sinus region
  • Airplane air is dryer than average, which works against the natural cleaning of the sinus mucous membranes
  • The change in barometric pressure in a cabin may also play a role in introducing bacteria into the sinus cavities

The authors are quick to point out their study shows an association between frequent air travel and sinus problems, but it does not prove actual cause. Other factors which may play a role include a disrupted sleep cycles, or exposure to other environments at their point of destination. Nonetheless, this is the first study of its kind to suggest frequent air travel has the potential to lead to sinus problems. 

What can be done if air travel is in your future?

  • Frequent rinses with nasal saline, before and after air travel, is effective in helping clear unwanted pathogens and irritants from the sinus area
  • Use hand sanitizer frequently, and avoid touching your face with your hands
  • Adequate rest and nutrition 
  • Drink lots and lots of water, since dehydration is common in air travelers and dryness compromises sinus health

Robert B. Prehn, M.D.
Ear, Nose and Throat Specialists of Wisconsin
Sinus and Allergy Center 

Neenah, WI