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Altitude Sickness, Viagra, and Bubbles on Flights

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The previous post Altitude Sickness During Flights told how certain symptoms occurring during air travel are from exposure to altitude.

If a craft were not pressurized, air pressure inside would be equivalent to air pressure outside. At high altitude, there would not be enough air pressure inside the craft for crew to be functional enough to fly. Crew in unpressurized craft wear oxygen-delivery equipment. This was one of my areas of study with the Navy.

Passenger planes are pressurized. The inside is kept at higher pressure than actual flight altitude (equivalent to lower altitude). The pressure inside is still not as much as at sea level. Keeping that much air pressure inside would create extreme metal fatigue on the craft and huge fuel costs. Regular passenger aircraft keep interior pressure equivalent to mild altitude exposure.

In the last few years, Viagra (sildenafil citrate) has been tested by various groups, including the military, as intervention against altitude sickness. Recently, it was also found that the drug reduced symptoms, thought to be jet lag, after flights. My guess is that it was effective for symptoms from flights because of the same properties that may help reduce symptoms, in some, of altitude sickness.

Another component that I discovered many years ago in my work in altitude sickness, was a bubble component - an altogether new dimension to the altitude sickness puzzle. Decompression sickness bubbles can form in the body when coming up after a scuba dive. I found the same kind of bubbles can form in your body when going to elevations encountered in aircraft and mountain travel, with no prior scuba diving. More of this in future posts.

Decompression sickness is also an issue when going into space during extra-vehicular activities. Click Space Walks.

Altitude sickness in flight is different from (or in addition to) the motion sickness of flight motion, or being stiff after not moving enough during long flights. The post Exercise and Stretch for Long Travel Sitting covers some exercises and stretches to relieve those problems.

Altitude exposure is not always a bad thing - certain athletes use altitude training to expose their body to conditions that make it work harder and develop greater oxygen carrying capacity. Future posts will cover different kinds of athletic training at altitude, and training to perform better physically at altitude. Click the labels under this post for more on each topic.


Photo by treehouse1977

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About the Author


M.Ed, PhD, FAWM

Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.

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