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Flying at high altitudes can cause discomfort
Flying at high altitudes can cause discomfort

July 4, 2007 (Insidermedicine) Flying in commercial aircrafts can cause discomfort in people unaccustomed to low barometric pressures, say researchers in a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

Although the cabins of modern aircraft are designed to protect passengers from very low barometric pressures during flight, sea-level pressure is not maintained. Some passengers on long commercial flights experience discomfort, with symptoms that are similar to those of acute mountain sickness, caused by traveling to terrestrial altitudes above 6,500 feet. The symptoms, which can include headache, nausea, weakness, and sleep disturbance, are often attributed to factors such as jet lag, prolonged sitting, dehydration, or foul cabin air, but may in fact be caused by a deficiency of oxygen in the blood. 

To study the association of low barometric pressure and the occurrence of sickness and discomfort, researchers analyzed the oxygen levels of 500 volunteers during a simulated 20-hour flight. As well, they aimed to determine whether exercise at these altitudes had an effect on the discomfort experienced. 

It was found that going from ground level to 8,000 feet caused a 4% decrease in blood oxygen levels in people unaccustomed to traveling to such a high altitude. While only 7% of the participants experienced severe symptoms, most experienced some discomfort after three to nine hours. People older than 60 years of age were less likely than younger people to report discomfort, and men were less likely than women. Finally, exercise during the flight did not make a significant difference in reducing discomfort. 

Based on these findings, it is important for commercial airlines to maintain a cabin altitude of 6,000 feet or lower on long-duration flights, to reduce the occurrence of discomfort among passengers. 

Reporting for Insidermedicine, I’m Dr. Susan Sharma.