It’s no secret that people who are terrified of flying have been “medicating” themselves on airplanes for years with alcohol, anxiety medication and antihistamines that have a sedating effect.
As more people rely on sleeping pills to get a restful night at home, the use of sleep aids may also be extending to plane travel. Some people use sleep medications to cope with overnight and longer flights and business travelers may use them so they can arrive at their destination rested.
Anyone who is considering this should address it with their doctor before taking prescribed medicine while flying. While people may think the use of sleep medicine in the air is the same as home use, complications increase when in flight.
Pitfalls of Sleeping Pill Use in Air Travel
Mixing alcohol and pills
Some travelers drink in addition to taking pills in an effort to enhance the effects of the medication. However, this combination can be deadly and dangerous. Combining sleeping pills and alcohol can literally cause you to stop breathing.
Blood clot risk
One of the rare but documented side effects that can occur in flight is deep-vein thrombosis (DVT) and the risk increases with sleeping pill use. In a famous case reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, a 36-year-old woman fell asleep in one position after taking a sleep tablet. A blood clot formed in her leg. The clot traveled through her system and lodged in her heart. She collapsed on the plane and died a week later.
Sleepiness and side effects
Anything can happen on a flight and taking a “knock-out” pill makes you vulnerable in many ways. Since takeoffs are sometimes delayed, or changed completely, it is dangerous to take a pill upon boarding a plane. If things change, you may have to awaken earlier than expected and have to deal with symptoms caused by not getting the full course of sleep you expected, including drowsiness, dizziness and imbalance. Some travelers say they feel even sleepier after taking sleep medicine during a flight.
Lack of medical care
While there may be a doctor on board, you can’t bet on it. Air travel can exacerbate existing conditions and sleeping pills can render you unable to manage health issues. Studies have shown that, in general, people who use certain sleep medicines are at greater risk for death. If some medical issue should occur after a plane has taken off, you will not have access to proper medical care.
Tips for Healthy Flights
1. White noise
Some people find noise-cancelling earphones are a drugless way to self-soothe.
2. Favorite movie
If you have a portable DVD, bring movies that relax and entertain you rather than settle for inflight selections.
3. Try exercise
Physical exercise before a flight can relax you and make you tired.
4. Medically clear all medicines
Even if you are just thinking of using an over-the-counter supplement to help you get some shut-eye, discuss this with your doctor first. And give it a try-out at home to see how well you sleep and how you feel when you awaken.
5. Never mix drugs and liquor
Sleeping pills and alcohol are a recipe for disaster any time. It can only be worse on a plane.
“Medical Issues Associated With Commercial Flights” – ScienceDirect.com
“Venous Thromboembolism from Air Travel” – Sage Journals
“Hypnotics’ Association With Mortality or Cancer: A Matched Cohort Study” – BMJ Journals
“Nurse: Don’t Take Sleeping Pills on Planes” – Business Insider
“Should You Take Sleeping Pills on a Flight?” – Condé Nast Traveler
“Sleeping Pills for Long Flights Community Discussion” – Fodor’s Travel