Two ‘mistakes’ that many people make on a plane and that can cause a fatal illness

A small study has found that the combination of in-flight alcohol and cabin pressure at cruising altitude can put pressure on the hearts of sleeping passengers, with a health risk for some.

High altitude cabin pressure is not a good combination when mixed with alcohol(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Drinking a cocktail on your next long-haul flight may be a less heart-healthy decision than you think, scientists have warned.

Most of us enjoy marking the start of our vacation with an alcoholic drink on board, and it is quite common to take a nap during these long voyages. However, new research findings suggest that the combination of high-altitude cabin pressure and in-flight alcohol could put unnecessary strain on the hearts of even younger, sleeping passengers. This cocktail of factors is believed to reduce blood oxygen levels while speeding up heart rate.

Scientists from Germany’s Institute of Aerospace Medicine expressed concern: “Alcohol consumption on board is an underestimated health risk that could easily be avoided,” they said. “It may be beneficial to consider modifying regulations to restrict access to alcoholic beverages on board aircraft.”

The study raises fears about heart problems during flights, as statistics show that heart-related complications account for seven percent of all medical emergencies during flights. Additionally, cardiac arrests cause 58 percent of all aircraft diversion cases. As published in the journal Thorax, the researchers highlighted that hypobaric environments are known to reduce blood oxygen levels and speed up heart rate, Bristol Live reports.

These experts further emphasized that air passengers with pre-existing heart conditions are at increased risk of exacerbated symptoms due to lower cabin pressure at cruising altitudes, which worsens when sleeping. If alcohol, which is normally consumed mid-flight, is added to this equation, the situation worsens, they reiterated.

In an attempt to understand the effects of alcohol and sleep in low-oxygen environments, scientists conducted an experiment with 48 participants between the ages of 18 and 40. Subjects spent two nights in a sleep lab or altitude chamber, which mimics the conditions of an airplane at cruising altitude.

On one of these nights, the participants consumed alcohol. The researchers conducted sleep studies and closely monitored heart rate and blood oxygen levels. They found that the combination of alcohol and low oxygen concentration at high altitudes negatively affected sleep quality, put pressure on the cardiovascular system, and caused prolonged periods of low blood oxygen levels.

The study concluded: “Taken together, these results indicate that, even in young, healthy individuals, the combination of alcohol intake with sleep under hypobaric conditions places considerable stress on the cardiac system and could lead to an exacerbation of symptoms in patients with heart or lung diseases.