Getting Sick After Flying? How to Prevent That Cold or Nasty Sinus Infection

You're not alone if you feel as if you're getting sick after flying: Around 20 percent of people on commercial flights develop symptoms of the common cold within one week of travel.

getting sick after flying

Researchers are finally starting to gather and publish more data about the health risks associated with airplane travel.

© Martinmark |

With literally billions of people traveling by air every year now, researchers are finally starting to gather and publish more data about the health risks associated with airplane travel. In terms of the common cold, it is now well-accepted that acute respiratory infections are frequently experienced after air travel. So it’s no surprise when we find ourselves getting sick after flying.

Studies have found a high prevalence and wide array of respiratory viruses in people who have recently traveled.[2] Up to 20 percent of passengers may develop respiratory infections within one week after air travel and that flight attendants have significantly more respiratory infections than those who do not frequently fly.

Getting Sick After Flying: How It Happens


Getting sick after traveling on a plane, train, or boat is one thing. Getting sick during travel is another. Motion sickness, though, is not uncommon; it can cause such symptoms as nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. Read about how to treat (and prevent) the condition in our post “Motion Sickness: If It Hits You on Long Trips, Consider These Prevention Steps.”

So why does flying on a plane increase our susceptibility to getting sick?

  • Spread of exhaled infected droplets. Airline cabins have lots of people in a crowded space who are there for long “exposure times,” so the risk of infection via airborne transmission could be high—especially if one or more passengers are infected with an airborne infectious disease. Droplets exhaled by an infected passenger may contain infectious agents such influenza. In fact, droplets have been shown to spread through the air from a single cough, a single breath, or a few seconds of speaking. Exposure to the row in front and the row behind occurs within 30 seconds and extends to seven rows within minutes.[3]
  • Low air pressure and oxygen compromise immune function. The conditions of low air pressure and low oxygen have been shown to impair certain immune system functions for a few days after long flights.[4] Researchers, to test how typical airplane air pressure and oxygen levels affect the immune system, studied the effects of a simulated 10-hour flight at an average cruising altitude of 8000 feet and then measured markers of immune system function in 52 healthy volunteers. They looked at blood samples before and on days 1, 4, and 7 after the flight. The researchers observed a number of immune system changes in the immediate days following the simulated flight. For instance, the subjects’ lymphocyte responses were decreased. Lymphocytes include T cells, B cells, and natural killer cells. Lymphocytes are the primary type of white blood cells made by the immune system to combat viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. These immune changes, they concluded, “may contribute to an increased susceptibility to respiratory infections commonly seen after long-haul flights.”[4]

Venous Thrombosis: Another Health Concern Tied to Air Travel

The lower oxygen levels and prolonged sitting on long flights doesn’t just impair your immune system’s ability to fight infections, it also puts you at risk for deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. Together, these two conditions make up the third most common cardiovascular disease after heart attack and stroke.

For persons who contract the conditions, they carry a high risk of death and permanent complications. Deep vein thrombosis is a condition in which a blood clot (thrombus) forms in one or more of the deep veins in your body, usually in your legs. Deep vein thrombosis can cause leg pain, but often occurs without any symptoms. Pulmonary embolism is a complication of deep vein thrombosis in which one or more arteries in your lungs becomes blocked by a blood clot that has traveled to your lungs from your leg.

While these conditions are of most concern for people with chronic respiratory diseases, doctors who specialize in travel medicine and lung diseases have been trying to spread the word for years that all travelers need to take precautions to avoid venous thromboembolism. This involves avoiding excess alcohol and caffeine-containing drinks, remaining mobile, and exercising during the flight.

For air travelers with a history of venous thromboembolism, obesity, heart disease, significant medical illness in previous six weeks, immobility, pregnancy, or estrogen therapy (hormone replacement  therapy or combined oral contraceptive pill), experts advise that in addition to the above advice, travelers wear compression stockings, avoid sedatives, and avoid sleeping for prolonged periods in abnormal positions. They also recommend a preventive dose of blood thinning medication for those at high risk of clots, such as those who have recently had a stroke, major surgery, or trauma.

How to Avoid Catching a Cold on a Plane: Three Strategies

To reduce your risk of getting a respiratory infection while on a flight, here are three specific actions you should take:

  1. Irrigate your nose (or your children’s) with a saline solution—both before and after the flight—by using a dropper or small squirt bottle. Nasal irrigation with a saline solution helps clean out at least some of the allergen, fungal, and viral pathogens from the nose and thus can help to reduce the risk of getting a sinus infection after flying. Keeping the nasal cavity moist in the dry atmosphere of an airplane cabin is also most beneficial.
  2. Drink lots of water throughout the flight.
  3. Take an herbal medicine with immune-boosting properties such as Echinacea for a week or two before the flight. Australian researchers conducted a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial to study whether a standardized Echinacea supplement is effective in the prevention of respiratory and other symptoms associated with long flights.[5] They gave 175 adults travelling for 15 to 25 hours Echinacea (root extract, standardized to 4.4 mg alkylamides) or placebo tablets starting 14 days before travel. The Echinacea group had lower respiratory symptom scores compared to placebo during travel. If you’re planning on traveling by air, you can give your own immune system a boost with Echinacea or other immune stimulating natural therapies starting at least two weeks before you travel. For more ideas on natural immune boosters for prevention of viral infections, such as Elderberry, Beta-Glucans, and Red Korean or American Ginseng, see our post “3 Immune System Supplements to Prevent the Flu this Winter.”

Your Thoughts?

What do you do to keep from getting sick when you’re traveling by air? Please share the techniques you and your family have used to keep an air flight from making you sick. Have you tried nasal irrigation? What other tips have you tried?

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Kathleen Jade, ND

Dr. Kathleen Jade is a naturopathic physician and served for many years as the Medical Director and Editor-In-Chief of Natural Health Advisory Institute. She has been licensed as a primary … Read More

View all posts by Kathleen Jade, ND

Comments Comments Policy
  • Another excellent way to avoid unhalation of airborne pathogenic microbes is to wear a surgical mask while in flight. Might look different, but it’s been 100% effective every time I fly.

  • I travel frequently fromScotland to Cyprus and everytime without fail on my return flight with the air condition/heat on the plane I come back to work with the cold/flu like symptons, during the summer month on coming back home it appears to be worse with a terrible cough added into the bargain. I just return on Sunday 9th and have since been sniffing, sneezing an coughing. I do take Echinacea Tinture on a daily bases and also was advised (had have done do) used Vicks Nasal Spray before getting on and on the flight, but this hasn’t in anyway helped. Can anyone suggest anything else that would stop me coming home from a nice holiday feeling miserable (apart from not coming home! LOL!). thanks

  • Another factor is the lack of sleep that often accompanies air travel, as it can really weaken an individual’s immune system. It’s important to tackle jet lag right away and get good rest after the flight.
    Another thing to try is the use of breathing masks while on public transportation, as many asians do. I haven’t tried that myself though.

  • One time I really pushed it and took an intercontinental flight after a night of heavy drinking. I was so weak that got a staph infection that started as a joint pain, which i assumed was due to poor posture on the long flight, but within a week I was in the hospital hooked up to IV antibiotics. Never again, give your body a break.

  • A flight attendant told us her method of not getting sick was to put polysporin ointment into the nostrils. Our family has been doing this for years and it has worked for us. Worth a try.

  • Wear a facemask! Better yet wear We are a new start up from Hawaii making fun and stylish masks. Bonus! Fabric is infused with essential oils. Please check us out! Insta&facebook. @thebarriermethod.

  • Passengers aren’t allowed to bring water on board with them, and the Air Canada only gives you a half cup of water per flight.

  • Albert, I’ve always been able to bring water on board, as long as I purchase it after going through security. Have you tried that? I couldn’t survive a flight without plenty of water!

  • I fly often, and get bleeding sinuses each time. I have noticed that when I begin to cough and sneeze on a flight, many other passengers are also sneezing and coughing at the same time. I have begun to wonder whether the pilots introduce some chemical into the air at set times… perhaps to purify the air or some other reason? The co-incidence is too compelling to be random.

  • Since I have started cleaning the tray table with disinfectant wipes I have not gotten sick, nor have my children. They are really quite dirty as evidenced by the used wipes. It is actually pretty gross. A quick wipe down of the arm rest and head rest help too.

  • I am sitting here 7 days after a flight from the Dominican Republic to NYC and I have had a severe cold/cough for 6 straight days. A co-worker commented to me that I get sick every time I return from vacation. He is absolutely right. Shouldn’t the FAA pay more attention to this problem or are we to fend for ourselves. At least mnow I know what is happening and I can do something to protect myself. Thanks for all the good info.

  • Don’t forgot that we are used to the germs in our neighbourhood but foreign countries have germs that will have us hacking in no time. My worst respiratory infection was after a trip to Russia. Loved the country but that souvenir I should have left behind.

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