9 Ways Flying Is Doing Serious Damage to Your Health

Fredrik Skold / Collection / Getty Images
Fredrik Skold / Collection / Getty Images

While waiting in airport security sucks almost as bad as the people you’re waiting in line with, you do it for a reason: to be safe. And statistically, flying IS the absolute safest way to get from point A to point B, even safer than walking. So a fear of flying seems pretty unfounded, right?

NOTSOFAST! While the whole giant-metal-tube-hurling-through-the-air thing is extremely safe, what's inside that tube might not be. Unnatural conditions combined with hundreds of people sharing such close quarters creates, well, all kinds of reasons to fear the friendly skies. And none of them have to do with the little black box.


1. The flu

Or SARS. Or Ebola. Or just about any viral infection you can think of. According to a 2004 study from the Journal of Environmental Health Research, your chances of catching a cold or flu are about 100 times higher when on an airplane. More because of your close proximity to other people than the recirculated air. Just watch how far a sneeze spreads on a plane, it's gross. And while it might make you feel better to take Airborne or Emergen-C, those are just high doses of antioxidants, not magical vaccines.

2. Cosmic rays

Sure, cosmic rays might sound all sunshiny and nice, but when you learn that they’re charged energetic particles... FROM SPACE, well, they just sound like something out of a B movie. More accurately, cosmic rays are protons that you’re exposed to in very high levels, especially when flying near the North Pole. This is a large reason why cancer rates among airline personnel are slightly higher than the population in general.

Deep Vein Thrombosis
Wikimedia/James Heilman, MD

3. Economy-class syndrome (DVT)

Though the name “deep vein thrombosis” sounds a little scarier, it’s a lot harder to spin into a marketing campaign to encourage people to fly first class. Sure, blood clots due to extended flying are uncommon, but if you’re over 40, obese, pregnant, on birth control, had recent surgery, or are on hormone replacement therapy, your chances have just increased. Then again, if you’ve somehow managed to be all of those, well, blood clots are the least of your problems.

4. Going deaf

Did you really think the hull's aluminum and plastic were protecting you from airplane noise when they couldn’t even protect poor Bill Shatner from an ape man on a wing? Ha! The average decibel level on a commercial flight can reach 110 decibels, and usually levels off at about 85. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) occupational says the safety limit is 88 decibels for a duration of four hours, and 85 decibels for eight hours; which means if you’re crossing oceans regularly, you may find yourself watching Matlock at uncomfortably high volumes sooner than you think.

Tray Table

5. Bacterial infection

Two hundred people, one confined space, and two bathrooms: you don’t have to be Sheldon Cooper to figure out a plane’s a venerable bastion of bacteria. A 2007 study of airplane tray tables found MRSA -- that antibiotic-resistant bacteria once only relegated to hospitals and John Kruk’s beard -- on nearly 60% of them. That compares to 6.25% of public restrooms. So, basically, you’re safer eating off a public toilet than your tray table.

6. EMF radiation

People get all indignant when the flight attendants tell them to turn off their electronic devices for five minutes so the plane can take off. But they’re actually doing themselves a favor, health-wise: all those devices produce electromagnetic fields that can seriously mess with the body’s natural electric reactions. While not deadly, they are a contributing factor to stuff like muscle aches, eye irritation, and rashes that you’ll probably blame on the airplane lavatory.


7. Dehydration

When you consider that your average airplane is significantly drier than the Sahara desert, you realize Spirit has some serious nerve charging for water. That’s right, the pressurized air in your cabin runs less than 20% humidity, while the Sahara hovers around 23%. Start crawling down the aisle with your hand outstretched and gasping for water the next time you fly, and see if they get the hint.

Crazy Person

8. Swelling

You ever wonder why two hours into a flight those Air Jordans you so feverishly laced up outside airport security now feel like they’re being vacuum sealed to your feet? It’s because the pressurized air leads to lower blood pressure, and more blood getting stuck in your cramped feet under the seat in front of you. And while getting up and walking around the plane can help, don’t ever, EVER be that person doing yoga in the aisles.

9. Psychotic disorders

In 2007, the good people at The Lancet published a meta-study (that's a study... OF STUDIES) on aviation and health and found that messing up your sleep cycle and body rhythms on a repeated basis can lead to cognitive decline, sleep disorders, heart disease, cancer, and psychotic and mood disorders. So that guy losing it at the FA because she won’t give him an extra pillow might only be one notch higher on the crazy ladder than the guy who sits outside your 7-11.