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Flight risks

February 19, 2009 |  5:32 pm

Longer flights and aging passengers mean that a growing number of airline passengers are suffering medical problems en route to business meetings or vacations, according to a review in the Lancet, the British medical journal, published online today.

Kd46dqnc It's not so much that the stale air, cramped quarters and hacking fellow travelers have gotten worse. In fact, on some of the newer aircraft, such as the gigantic Airbus A380, air circulation and leg room may be improved.

But the jumbo-plus airplanes are capable of flying for 18 to 20 hours at a time. And the risk of deep vein thrombosis -- a blood clot in the legs that can move to the lungs -- begins to rise at four hours and is highest in flights of eight or more hours.  (Staying well-hydrated, walking around the cabin and flexing your calf muscles can help prevent blood clots.)

Additionally, aging passengers with heart, breathing or other problems may be more sensitive to changes in air cabin pressure. And for those who have recently had major surgery, the same change in pressure that causes ears to pop can also --at least anecdotally -- cause wounds to open.

For old and young alike, longer flights mean more opportunities to contract the flu and other bugs circulating in close quarters.

Earlier this month, passengers on flights from Vietnam to Singapore and then Singapore to New Zealand were warned that they may have been exposed to highly infectious measles after an unvaccinated child returned home ill from a visit to Vietnam, which has been experiencing an outbreak.

Reviewers recited a litany of diseases that have been transmitted on commercial flights, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and tuberculosis.

Still feel like flying? It's generally safe, the review concluded. But the take away: Make sure you're in good enough health for the flight, and understand the risks.

-- Mary Engel

Photo credit: AP / Charles Rex Arbogast