What Happens to Your Body on a Long-Haul Flight

long haul flight

You don’t need anyone to tell you how awful it feels to be cramped, tired, hungry, and uncomfortable on a plane. But why is it so distressing? Here’s what happens to your body on a long-haul flight (and any flight) and why you really should (but probably won’t) skip that third Bloody Mary en route.

There’s not much you can do to avoid these effects, but your experience can be made a little easier by stocking up on the right travel accessories.

Your Sense of Taste is Diminished

No one is going to argue that airplane food isn’t awful. However, airlines aren’t entirely to blame. A study by Lufthansa found that cabin pressurization and bone-dry, in-flight air evaporates nasal mucus, causing our sinus membranes to swell. Combined, this makes it more difficult to discern the subtle scents that are critical to our sense of taste. In particular, our sense of salty and sweet dulls by up to 30 percent at altitude. This makes the job of airline chefs (yes, that job actually exists) particularly challenging, which is why they frequently taste-test their meals in simulated high-pressure environments or on real-world flights. It’s also the reason why big, bold spices are often used to punch-up the flavor profiles of airline food.

Oxygen Deprivation Makes You Sleepy

Modern airplane cabins are designed to simulate an elevation of 6,000-8,000 feet. As any climber or mountaineer can attest, this can result in dizziness, sleepiness (or sleeplessness in some individuals), and an overall dulling of mental acuity. The lack of movement, especially on long-haul flights, only exacerbates the effect by slowing the flow of blood (and therefore oxygen) throughout your body. This is all the more reason why it’s critical to get up and walk around every hour or so while airborne.

feeling sleepy on a flight

Your Skin Takes a Real Beating

That same recirculated air that dries out your nasal cavity is brutal on your skin too. Thankfully, over-the-counter body lotions and balms can combat this. It’s also why airline employees who fly frequently double-down on their water consumption while on the job. However, an especially nasty side effect for those same employees — and frequent flyers — is that many are twice as likely to develop melanoma. This is believed to be due to the insufficient ability of airplane windows to block out harmful UV rays.

You Get Very, Very Gassy

The forces in a pressurized airplane cabin will cause intestinal gas to expand. This can leave you feeling bloated, full, and cramped, and can be made worse with certain foods. Doctors agree that the best thing you can do is … let it out. Holding it in can lead to severe pain and intense bloating. That same gas can also expand and cause pain in your ears, which aren’t always able to pressurize fast enough. Other bodily cavities are susceptible as well, including the space between your teeth and gums and your sinuses. For allergy sufferers, the latter can be especially painful.

If you find yourself stuck overnight at an airport instead of a plane, here’s the best way to snag some shut-eye.

Outdoors

Tepui’s Latest Rooftop Tents and Gear Are Raising the Bar on Outdoor Adventuring

Think you need a hefty camper or a massive stash of gear to enjoy camping? Think again.
Travel

The Future of Air Travel Is Full of Cute, Dog-Sized Robots

Do we want armies of small autonomous robots running rampant in every airport bathroom, newsstand, and Chili’s Too?
Living

Behind-the-Scenes at Van Dam Custom Boats’ Workshop and Design Studio

Every boat begins not with a model or template, but with a conversation.
Food & Drink

These 19.2-Ounce Beer Cans Are the New Tall Boys

Tall boys were once reserved for big-name beers, but like pretty much everything else, craft breweries have entered the game with 19.2-ounce cans.
Travel

3D Scanners Could (Finally) Expedite Airport Security by Ditching Liquid Restrictions

Let's bring back the good ol' days of free-wheelin' air travel.
Food & Drink

10 Best Restaurants in New Orleans, Both Old and New

The love for food and booze knows no bounds, which you’ll quickly come to realize after spending a few days in the Big Easy.
Travel

This Hotel Won’t Let You Have Jet Lag

A combination of technology and luxurious amenities will help correct your wonky circadian rhythm after a long flight.
Travel

Deep-Fried Everything: 4 of the Most Gluttonous State Fairs in the U.S.

Because your cardiologist’s kids aren’t going to put themselves through college.
Travel

Road Trip on 2 Wheels Instead of 4 Along United States Bicycle Route 66

Cyclists on USBR 66 ride on two-lane rural roads that parallel or exactly follow the original Route 66 motorway.
Travel

Summer Ain’t Over! Head to One of the Most Underrated Beaches in the U.S.

Some of the world's best beaches are right here in the States — no passport required.
Travel

Mooching, Whales, and Catching Kings: What It’s Like to Go Salmon Fishing in Alaska

It's more peaceful (and a lot easier) than you can imagine.
Outdoors

6 Mystical Old-Growth Forests Around the World

"The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness," says John Muir.
Living

Take a Don Draper-Worthy Road Trip in this Vintage $225,000 RV

Everything from the unique shape down to the luxury finishes makes this fully restored travel trailer worth the price. It's even been signed by Chuck Pelly.
Travel

This Is the Killer iPhone Camera Lens Kit You’ve Been Waiting For

With these add-on iPhone lenses, Olloclip wants you to leave that bulky DSLR at home.