cold after flying

The cold after flying – Why does it happen so often?

Martina Roters
04.10.2019
10 pictures
10 minutes

One, two, three, four – passengers come out of an airplane’s door. And if you are number five – a nasty cold will arrive!

It is probably not only a subjective impression – the cold after flying. Because even the cabin crew, who by profession are certainly the most professional in dealing with the flight situation, have a cold more often than the “normal” population. Flight attendants, for example, suffer 3 times more frequently from chronic bronchitis – despite significantly lower nicotine consumption.

So, why does the cold after flying occur – and more importantly: can you actively do something to reduce the risk of catching a cold?

First of all, we have to settle this once and for all:

What does a cold actually mean?

In many places in Germany – and elsewhere – people jump into ice-cold rivers with or without neoprene on New Year’s Day without catching a cold.

So, a cold is not related linguistically to the adjective cold, but means that your immune system is not up to the challenge of enemy germs.

Or, to steal an advertising slogan: “If they’re too strong, you’re too weak.”

And for this “weakness”, well, there are a few starting points on our flight journey that make it easier for bacteria or viruses. The good thing about it is that if we have recognized them, we are not completely helpless against the cold after flying. Let’s start at the other end.

Which you can’t do anything about for now:

Not all people who enter an airplane are in perfect health.

Most bacteria and viruses are transmitted by droplet infection and are hurled almost two metres through the air. In addition, they are distributed by infectious persons through unwashed hands, for example by touching objects in the aircraft: door, seat and luggage handles, safety belt buckles, folding tables, storage compartments, etc. There they can survive for more than 24 hours.

So if you can’t afford a private jet, you’ll have to share your plane with people and still try to stay healthy.

Give your immune system the best conditions!

This includes: A healthy diet, especially a good supply of vitamins and minerals, especially iron, zinc and selenium, enough sleep and no harmful “drugs”, including nicotine and alcohol.

You can also “train” your immune system – by hardening it, for example by taking a sauna. On the other hand, you should not overstrain it. Too little sleep and persistent stress have a negative effect on the immune system.

Just like strenuous sports just before a flight. The phenomenon is called “open window” because three to 72 hours after a very strenuous physical activity the door is open to the pathogens because the immune system is temporarily weakened.

Keep the pathogens at a distance

Just how?

This starts with seat selection. It’s not just the view that makes it so popular – the window seat. Perhaps the passengers who are desperate to get their hands on one have also heard of the study by researchers in Atlanta, who have identified it as the place furthest away from the zone with the most germs. That is the place in the corridor. This is where most people pass by – human bacterial catapults include fellow passengers taking their seats, going to the toilet and cabin crew taking care of the passengers.

Even when boarding, it is not advisable to get in line long before the queue even starts to move. Here, too, American researchers have discovered that it is advantageous for airlines to use zone boarding to reduce the risk of infection, so that as few people as possible have to pass people who are already on board.

When you have arrived at your seat, you can clean your belt buckle and your folding table with disinfectant tissue. In general, travel doctors recommend frequent hand disinfection. Since this is not possible with anything made of textiles, you should disinfect your hands again before every meal.

If your flight is not fully booked and someone is coughing in line in front of you, the cabin crew will surely understand if you discreetly ask for another seat.

Use the air conditioning for your own protection against a cold after flying

Airplane air is desert air!

So water is your salvation! Why? What would be so bad about desert air?

The arsenal of weapons of your immune defence does not only consist of an army of killer cells. They intervene much later. The “organic” weapon of your immune system is your “mucociliary apparatus” (MCC = mucociliar clearance). This is the mucous membrane covered with mobile cilia, which is located, for example, in your nose, but also in your bronchi, and which ensures from the outset that foreign bodies such as dust, but also germs are transported as directly as possible towards the mouth, where they are coughed up or swallowed and then destroyed by the hydrochloric acid in the stomach. However, this only works if the conditions for the correct functioning of the cilia are right, otherwise they will stop working!

And what conditions do they need? Humid heat!

Did we clear things up? While your apartment has about 30 percent humidity, the Sahara has about 20 percent, some planes only 10 percent.  (That’s good for their metal skin, which doesn’t rust so quickly, but for your mucociliary apparatus it’s not good at all.) So drinking is the thing to do! And not all at once, but always in small sips to moisten your mouth and throat. And best of all water. Because coffee, tea and alcohol only dehydrate your body additionally.

Are there also “little remedies” against a cold after flying?

If you ask travellers, there are some insider tips that are all over town. All kinds of bacteria-inhibiting lozenges are very popular, for example with sage or Icelandic moss. In order to support the nasal mucous membrane, there are salt sprays, partly in combination with hyaluronic acid or essential oils such as eucalyptus or aloe vera. Others recommend sesame oil and some simply swear by vaseline to protect the nasal walls from drying out. Your pharmacy may also have “their” extra tips, e.g. elderberry powder to ward off the cold after flying.

The right clothes

If “dressing like an onion” is the order of the day anywhere, then it is on the plane. Especially when crossing time zones or returning from sunny regions to the European winter.

Yes, it’s no fun to reluctantly put on your jeans at 30°C in Greece. But even less to freeze at 10°C in Frankfurt! Or at -1°C. The travel industry has a few cool offers: There are, for example, zip-off trousers where you can zip on the trouser legs later, there’s the famous wrinkle and flutter look…

Come on, no excuse, you will surely think of something, how you too manage to be prepared for the whole temperature range. Not everyone needs to have their own Super Travel blanket, even if it can be an interesting investment – or gift – for frequent flyers. But a pair of extra cuddly socks should already be in it, because the rule of thumb for most airlines is: Better too cold than too warm.

Keep your blood circulation up to speed

This is also supposed to be good for the immune system. Of course, this is not so easy when you are crammed into the “cattle class” on a long-distance flight. But even there you can, for example, bounce your toes, lift your feet alternately from the ground, make circular movements out of your ankles and do isometric exercises. This is also very good for preventing the risk of thrombosis.

Here is a video with valuable exercises for long distance flights:

A healthy (!) attitude

Yes, this article was supposed to create awareness, and it had to spread some unsavoury details about bacteria and viruses. And that could be part of the problem.

Maybe you’ve heard of the famous placebo effect before. The immune system reacts to taking a pill –which does not contain any active ingredient at all.

But there is also the much lesser known brother of the placebo effect, the nocebo effect:

You believe that something will harm you – and then that’s exactly what happens. By the way, this is the effect on which Voodoo magic is based.

And that’s why it doesn’t help at all to imagine the whole plane full of viruses and bacteria lurking to catch you a cold after flying. You have to realize that this is the case everywhere every day anyway: At work, on the bus, in the supermarket, the plane is no exception. And as a rule, our immune system can handle it easily. Be well prepared and trust your immune system! And yes, the overwhelming majority of all passengers remain healthy on the aisle seat, everything else is just statistics! If you want, arm yourself with a few additional “pills”, which magically strengthen your belief in the defence and whose effect, as we have seen, is not just plucked out of the air.

And what if I already have a cold when I start my flight?

Then, of course, all the tips mentioned above apply even more!

In addition, however, there is the consideration of the condition in which one is fit to fly at all.

For on board an airplane – in long-haul flights, where the altitude is 10,000 meters for economic and (safety) technical reasons – pressure conditions prevail that occur on earth only at 2,000 – 2,500 meters, because healthy people do not even notice this, especially since they do not have to make any physical effort on board. However, there are patients who are at risk of hypoxia. This is an undersupply of oxygen in the blood or organs. Patients with heart or lung problems should also consult their doctor.

If you have a severe cold, especially sinusitis or frontal sinusitis, you can get very painful problems, especially during the landing approach and the resulting sudden change in pressure. If the Eustachian tube, also known as the ear trumpet, which balances the pressure between the middle ear and the surrounding area, is not free and permeable, severe pain can result: headache, cheek pain, toothache and ear pain. Even the eardrum can tear.

To free the Eustachian tube, you can try chewing gum, because the swallowing movement sets the muscles in motion. Forced yawning also has a similar effect. If this does not help, you can try Valsalva. Since this is a bit difficult to explain, we prefer to let colleagues do it in a video:

If you can’t clear your nose, you should use nasal drops or decongestant nasal sprays from the pharmacy in good time before landing (yes, exactly those effective ones that pharmacists warn against prolonged use because of the danger of addiction).

Another tip without medication, which can give you relief even before the flight, if you use it more often: The mucociliary apparatus can be stimulated by acupressure.

Here is a 30-second video of a Spanish doctor (with English subtitles):

(The author’s own recommendation: Simply massage further along the nostrils up to the two eyebrows, because this also has a liberating effect on the sinuses and frontal sinuses.)

Now the only thing left is: WingMag wishes all readers good health before and after landing! We hope that our tips will help you prevent a cold after flying.

*The low temperature on board does not only have energy saving reasons. It’s really about the well-being of the passengers. On the one hand, germs can usually spread less rapidly at cooler temperatures, and on the other, the oxygen saturation of the blood decreases from 98 percent on the ground to about 92 percent in the aircraft cabin. The healthy passenger does not even notice this mild oxygen deficiency, because the body automatically compensates for it by increasing the heart and respiratory rate. It has been shown, however, that the higher the temperature, the easier it is to faint under these circumstances. And the airlines prefer passengers shivering to unconscious passengers…

by Martina Roters

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