Geriatrician, Hospitalist, Patient Advocate, Healthcare Educator

Drinking Alcohol on a Flight May Be Bad for You

Per Linda Carroll, in NBC News “Drinking on a plane may be bad for your heart, new research suggests”.

“If you enjoy having a glass of wine or a cocktail before dozing off during long airplane flights, you might want to reconsider it, a new study suggests.

A series of lab experiments discovered that when people fall asleep after consuming alcohol at the low air pressures typically experienced during airline flights, blood oxygen drops to worrisome levels and heart rates increase even in those who are healthy and young, according to the report published in the journal Thorax.

Even when we don’t drink, commercial flying can be taxing for the body. Dry cabin air can cause dehydration and being immobile in cramped seats for hours can sometimes trigger blood clots in the legs. At cruising altitude, cabin pressure is set to what would be experienced between 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level, which can contribute to lower oxygen saturation in the blood. As air pressure decreases the amount of oxygen a person takes in with each breath also declines, according to the National Institutes of Health.

For the study, 48 healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 40 were randomly assigned to one of two groups: Half would go to a sleep lab that had air pressure at sea level, while the other half would sleep in an altitude chamber that mimicked the air pressure found on planes traveling at cruising altitude.

Twelve people in each group slept for four hours after having consumed the equivalent of two cans of beer or two glasses of wine, while the other 12 slept after consuming no alcohol. After a break of two days, the procedure was reversed, so that those who had consumed alcohol before sleeping now slept with no alcohol on board and vice versa.

People who drank before falling asleep in the altitude chamber on average had their blood oxygen saturation drop to 85%, while their heart rates rose to compensate for the lower oxygen levels to an average of nearly 88 beats per minute.

That’s compared to a blood oxygen saturation drop to 95% and a heart rate rise to 77 beats per minute in those who consumed alcohol at sea level before falling asleep."

This study consisted of healthy individuals and showed these results. It would be worthwile to see what happens in the elderly and patients with underlying health conditions such as chornic lung disease and heart disease. This just adds another reason not to drink and fly.