Getting There: Dealing With Jet Lag, Blood Clots, Motion Sickness and Altitude Sickness
Flying across more than a couple of time zones can give you jet lag, with symptoms such as daytime drowsiness, difficulty sleeping, fatigue and a generally fuzzy, out-of-sorts feeling.
When you have crossed over several time zones, it may take a few days for you to overcome these symptoms. However, if you're flying due south — from New York to Peru, for instance — despite the length of the trip, you won't be crossing any time zones and will not experience jet lag.
If you would like to stave off the groggy effects of jet lag, here's what to do. First, try to adapt to the new time zone before you depart, by going to bed earlier at night if you are traveling east and staying up later if you are traveling west. It also is helpful to choose daytime flights, ideally with an afternoon or evening arrival in your country of destination.
During the flight, avoid alcohol, caffeine and heavy foods, drink plenty of water, and change your watch to reflect the local time of your destination.
Some travelers find it useful to take sleeping pills when they are aboard the plane and, if necessary, at bedtime when they arrive at their destination. Some people also find melatonin (a natural human hormone available in pill form from pharmacies and health-food stores) to be useful in accelerating the process of adapting to the new time. Take 3 milligrams of melatonin at about 30 minutes before bedtime on the day of travel, and for the first three or four nights in your new location.
You also can just take a nap when you're most tired, particularly before times when you need to be most alert. However, long naps, about four hours or more, will slow your adjustment to the new time zone and should be taken only when the stay in the new time zone is limited.
Airplane flights longer than four hours can cause blood clots in the legs, especially if you are obese or a smoker, take birth-control pills or hormones, have undergone recent surgery, or have a history of blood clots. Called deep vein thrombi, these clogged arteries cause pain and swelling in the legs. Worse, they sometimes dislodge and move to the lungs, resulting in a pulmonary embolism, which is potentially fatal. And while you might assume that this is just a problem for the elderly or heart patients, it can affect anyone.
Sitting still in an upright position causes reduced blood flow in the legs. This lack of activity, combined with dehydration from breathing the dry, thin air inside airplanes, can lead to clots.
To reduce your risk of blood clot formation, drink plenty of fluids on a long flight. Every couple of hours, get up and walk up and down the aisle.
If despite these precautions you experience pain or swelling in the legs after a long flight, see a doctor immediately. You will need medical treatment if you have a blood clot in your leg.
Any healthy person who suddenly ascends to altitudes above 9,000 feet can experience headache, nausea, poor concentration and sleep difficulties. Don't mistake it for a hangover. Altitude sickness is a potential hazard for anyone traveling to a mountainous region, including Peru, Bolivia, Nepal and even the Rocky Mountains.
The easiest way to avoid complications of high altitude is to ascend slowly. Some people who are sensitive to high altitudes benefit by taking the prescription diuretic acetazolamide, beginning two days before the trip. For most people, the symptoms begin to improve within a couple of days. If the symptoms become severe, or do not improve, however, it is best to move to a lower altitude.
If you develop shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, you should seek medical attention immediately. Some people experience a dangerous syndrome called high-altitude pulmonary edema. Oxygen therapy and prompt descent to lower elevations are essential to treat this potentially fatal problem.
Just about any sort of travel can give you motion sickness.
Fortunately, a couple of medical remedies can control the nausea. First, there's scopolamine, which comes in the form of a patch worn behind the ear. The medication is released into the body through the skin. Its effects last three days. However, scopolamine can be constipating, and it may decrease the amount of sweat, a disadvantage in the tropics, and give you dryness of mouth, nose or throat. Meclizine, a pill that is sold under the brand name Antivert, also may be effective, and it has fewer side effects.