How to tell when you’re too sick to fly

Nov 30, 2019

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The holiday season is a time for decorations, presents and winter getaways. It’s also when you — and everyone you know — gets sick. Yes, flu and cold season are upon us, and those nasty viruses never seem to care if you have travel plans. But should you be pushing through and getting on a plane if you’re feeling sick?

“As you head off on your holiday travel, the last thing you want to experience is a health emergency in the air where you can’t get medical attention,” Dr. Nate Favini, medical lead at Forward (a membership-based preventive care clinic), told The Points Guy. “There’s also the risk of getting kicked off your flight and, of course, you don’t want to spread an infection to other passengers.”

In fact, according to the Journal of Environmental Health Research, you are 100 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane. And the Wall Street Journal previously cited a study that said the likelihood increases by 20%. So many people got sick at once during a 2008 flight from Boston (BOS) to Los Angeles (LAX) after an ill passenger with norovirus boarded that the plane actually made an emergency landing three hours into the trip.

With this in mind, we consulted several experts to learn how to tell when you’re too sick to fly, for your sake as well as the safety of other passengers.

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You have a fever

A good rule of thumb is to never fly when you have a fever, according to New York-based internist Dr. Frank Contacessa. Of course, this would include having the flu. “In addition to the obvious risk of spreading your germs, the cabin environment is not a friendly place when you are sick,” he said. “Having a fever, in general, will accelerate fluid loss from your body. The very low humidity of the cabin air will dehydrate you even faster. Dehydration makes you feel even worse, increasing weakness, headaches, lightheadedness, etc.”

You’re vomiting

(Photo by martin-dm/Getty Images)
(Photo by martin-dm/Getty Images)

Sure, there might be vomit bags in the seatback pocket. But you probably shouldn’t be using them if you’re throwing up before you get on the plane. “If you have a fever over 100.4 degrees or are experiencing vomiting, there’s a really good chance that you’re contagious,” said Favini. “Airlines have been known to remove passengers who are experiencing these symptoms.”

Related: It’s flu season — here’s how to avoid getting sick on a plane

You have a lower respiratory infection

Another potential problem can arise if you have a lower respiratory infection such as bronchitis or pneumonia. “The pressurized cabin air has less oxygen, which can make you feel short of breath if your airways are already inflamed from an infection,” said Contacessa.

Favini added, “Flying is stressful on your body and your immune system in particular, so it can reduce your ability to fight off an infection. The air onboard is incredibly dry, and even healthy people end up extremely dehydrated at the end of their flight. You may end up being sicker or sick for longer because of flying while ill.”

You still have certain flu symptoms

If you have the flu and you’re still experiencing any symptoms, including fever, cough, runny nose, congestion, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, you are still contagious and should avoid flying, according to Favini. The CDC states that “people with flu are most contagious in the first 3 to 4 days after their illness begins.”

Not only are you able to infect someone up to six feet away, but you could also feel horrendous on the plane. “Anyone who has flown with sinus congestion will agree that the headache can be unbearable,” Contacessa added. “So, having a fever and sinus congestion should be good reasons to ask for a medical note from your doctor to change your flight reservation.”

Related: How to boost your immune system so you don’t get sick while traveling

You have ear pain

Do you know how your ears sometimes pop during taking off or landing? Well, if you have ear pain and pressure, then that brief moment of discomfort can become severe. “The changes in pressure during the flight can cause your eardrum to burst if you have an ear infection and it’s not properly treated before you take off,” said Favini.

Your heart is racing

(Photo by PeopleImages/Getty Images)
(Photo by PeopleImages/Getty Images)

Even if you don’t have the sniffles or more obvious symptoms of being sick, there is one tell-tale warning sign that you absolutely shouldn’t fly. If you do, you could experience a serious medical emergency.

“If you’re experiencing chest pain or a racing heartbeat, especially if this is new or severe, don’t get on your flight,” said Favini. “This can be a sign of a life-threatening medical condition, and even if the pilot does land your flight, it might not be fast enough for you to get the help you need. The same goes for shortness of breath.”

Related: The best travel insurance policies and providers

When you can fly again

Ok, let’s say you’ve determined you’re too sick to fly. When can you reschedule your trip?

“If you do change your plans and postpone your trip, you should wait until you have been without a fever for at least 24 to 48 hours,” said Contacessa. “If you are recovering from the flu, you should wear a mask to protect your fellow travelers. If in doubt, use your common sense. If you think that you are too sick, stay home.”

Featured photo by Roos-Koole/Getty Images.

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