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This is why you shouldn't drink alcohol on a flight

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  • Alcohol consumption at high altitudes can significantly lower blood oxygen saturation.
  • Drinking alcohol before sleeping on a flight can lead to an increased heart rate, posing risks to cardiovascular health.
  • Those with pre-existing medical conditions or older passengers are at greater risk of health complications from drinking alcohol during flights.

Flying can be a stressful experience for many, and the allure of a glass of wine or a cocktail to ease the nerves or help with sleep is tempting. However, recent research suggests that consuming alcohol before sleeping on a flight can pose significant health risks, even for young and healthy individuals. This article delves into the reasons why you should reconsider drinking alcohol during a flight, supported by findings from various studies and expert opinions.

The Impact of Cabin Pressure and Alcohol

Airplane cabins are pressurized to simulate an altitude of around 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. This reduced air pressure means that the amount of oxygen in the cabin is lower than at sea level. According to the National Institutes of Health, this can lead to lower oxygen saturation in the blood, which is further exacerbated by alcohol consumption.

Dr. Eva-Maria Elmenhorst, a co-author of a study published in the journal Thorax, explains, "We were surprised to see that the effect was so strong. Please don't drink alcohol while being on an airplane". The study found that individuals who consumed alcohol before sleeping in a simulated airplane cabin experienced a significant drop in blood oxygen levels and an increase in heart rate.

Decreased Oxygen Saturation and Increased Heart Rate

The study involved 48 healthy adults aged 18 to 40, who were divided into two groups. One group slept in a sleep lab with sea-level air pressure, while the other group slept in an altitude chamber mimicking airplane cabin pressure. Participants consumed alcohol equivalent to two cans of beer or two glasses of wine before sleeping. The results were striking: those who drank alcohol in the altitude chamber had an average blood oxygen saturation drop to 85% and a heart rate increase to nearly 88 beats per minute. In contrast, those who drank at sea level had a blood oxygen saturation drop to 95% and a heart rate increase to 77 beats per minute.

Dr. Deepak Bhatt, director of the Mount Sinai Fuster Heart Hospital in New York, emphasized the risks, stating, "For years, I've been telling patients not to drink on flights. This study makes me more confident in that advice".

Risks for Individuals with Pre-existing Conditions

While young and healthy individuals may not experience severe harm, the combination of decreased oxygen saturation and increased heart rate can exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions. Mariann Piano, a professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, noted, "What I found concerning was the drop in oxygen saturation. It was approaching a very abnormal level that could compromise the delivery of oxygen to the tissues of the body".

Individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other cardiorespiratory conditions are particularly vulnerable. Dr. Prashant Vaishnava, a cardiologist at Columbia University, advised, "People with underlying cardiorespiratory conditions should steer away from alcohol when flying".

The Broader Implications

The findings of this study have broader implications for airline policies and passenger behavior. The researchers recommended that airlines consider restricting the inflight consumption of alcoholic beverages to mitigate these risks. Dr. Elmenhorst urged passengers to avoid alcohol while flying to minimize potential health complications and medical emergencies.

Expert Opinions and Recommendations

Experts agree that the combination of alcohol, reduced cabin pressure, and sleep can negatively impact the cardiovascular system and sleep quality. Dr. Taran Narula, a cardiologist, explained, "The quality of their sleep was worse, and their heart rate increased a little bit. So, you may want to rethink this".

The study's findings suggest that even higher doses of alcohol could amplify these effects, potentially escalating the risk of health complications and medical emergencies during flight, especially among older individuals and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

While the idea of enjoying a drink during a flight may seem appealing, the potential health risks far outweigh the benefits. The combination of alcohol, reduced cabin pressure, and sleep can lead to significant drops in blood oxygen levels and increased heart rates, posing risks even to young and healthy individuals. For those with pre-existing medical conditions, the dangers are even more pronounced. To ensure a safer and more comfortable flight, it is advisable to avoid alcohol and stay hydrated.

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