Is Flying Making You Sick?

Dear Reader,

This is kind of gross, but I am writing to you at the moment on a Deutsche Bahn train with a runny nose. As mundane as this sounds, I am astounded by this development, as I haven’t been sick since 2019 — over two years! Before COVID-related social distancing measures, I would catch the common cold one to two times a year — what a dreadful status quo this used to be! Today, as I try to limit my sniffles on the train under my not one but TWO surgical masks, I am remembering the last time that I got sick, which was also happened to be abroad. In recent years, it seems that I more often get sick or am sick with a cold abroad than in the comfort of my own home.

Deutsche Bahn (train in Germany)

When I spent a few weeks in Argentina researching, I had a persistent cold. On the tail end of my hot and humid China adventure a few summers ago, I caught a cold which stayed with me also through my short trip to Japan and bothered me all the way home. When my boyfriend and I met up in London a few years ago, we arrived with colds stemming (from separate origins) and were sick together. Finally, most recently, over summer 2019 in Iceland, my boyfriend and I both caught a cold (from probably the same origin) (more here). Apparently, my body is just not up to the challenge of fending off foreign pathogens. Does anyone else get sick easily abroad?

Why is it that people catch colds and other illnesses while traveling? As I allow my nose to run under the concealment of my masks, I wonder about this point. After some narrow and shallow internet research (thanks Google!), I have uncovered likely reasons why people get sick while traveling.

First, generally, people can feel all sorts of unpleasantness while traveling for a slew of reasons. Foreign countries can mean foreign diseases like malaria, fevers, and the flu, etc. Additionally, one can easily suffer from digestion problems if the local water source is less sanitary than what one is accustomed to. When I was in Argentina, for example, I met fellow travelers who had to unexpectedly postpone their departure from Peru when the two of them both fell ill at the airport after they concluded what was probably a reaction to the fresh fruit they ate the night before, which was “cleaned” with the tap water. Similarly, when I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, we were warned not to eat certain types of fish due to bacteria-related risks — eep!

Euskirchen, Germany

I am very lucky that I have never suffered from any major digestive issues abroad, however, as is evident from my list above, I’m nearly hopeless when it comes to the common cold. Apparently, there are some very good reasons why this is the case….

Research shows that yes you can be more likely to catch some sort of upper-respiratory malady from air travel for a few different reasons:

  1. Proximity. This point is not at all mind-blowing given the COVID social distancing policies. When you are cramped on a plane, your neighbor’s germs are literally in your face. However, close quarters are just one reason, and not even the most compelling one for your flight-related cold.
  2. Dry air.While the recycled air on planes gets a bad reputation, according to UPMC, it’s actually the low humidity of the air, rather than the fact that it is re-filtered, which makes you more likely to fall ill. Specifically, when your nose and throat become dry, they are less effective at defending your body from pathogens thereby weakening your immune response.
  3. Internal discomfort. Your body just doesn’t like flying. Cleveland Clinic research shows that long flights put stress on your body’s digestive system as well as on your circadian rhythms (sleep cycle), which can weaken your immune response. Additionally, adding insult to injury, people often find themselves dehydrated on flights, which makes it harder for the body to fight off germs.
Some fine juice

Even sickness as mild as a cold is downright unfun; and please note, dear Reader, I have been tested twice for COVID —both tests were negative. I neither support nor recommend being sick (not a great lifestyle choice if you ask me 😉 ). Additionally, if you do feel sick with cold symptoms, make sure to get tested for COVID!

Take your vitamins, get sleep, and drink buckets of water, dear Reader, especially when you travel.



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