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Some Joys of Flight

Wilbur Wright made the first flight on December 17, 1903. It lasted twelve seconds and spanned 120 feet. Hardly long enough to develop jet lag or a blood clot, catch the flu, complain about the food or lose your baggage! Things have changed, and now all of these things and more are possible. Let’s discuss some of them.

Gas and gases: some basic science

Boyle’s Law, which you learned in high school and promptly forgot, states that Pressure x  Volume  = a Constant (P X V = C). That is, as we fly higher, and the ambient pressure in our pressurized aircraft becomes lower, the volume of any trapped gas increases. This can lead to a couple of problems.

As we eat and drink, and eat and drink, and sit bent at a right angle like a pretzel, and don’t feel comfortable breaking wind, the gas that is trapped in our intestinal system expands, making us bloated and uncomfortable. Not the end of the world, but you might want to go easy on the beans and Brussels sprouts, and wear loose-fitting clothing with a few extra notches in the belt.

Air may also get trapped in our Eustachian tubes, the passageways leading to the eardrums from the nose, mouth and sinuses. This usually creates a problem during descent. As the pressure starts to increase, the trapped air contracts and creates a “sucking” effect on the eardrum. This may be quite painful and can lead to bleeding behind the eardrum. Those who are congested to start with may be particularly susceptible. To prevent or minimize this problem, try these measures:

  • Drink, chew gum or swallow frequently as you descend.
  • Breast-feed if you are a baby.
  • If you are already congested, take an oral or topical decongestant.
  • Perform the Toynbee manoeuvre (pinch your nose, shut your mouth and blow) in order to re-expand your Eustachian tubes.
  • Politely ask the pilot to perform a very gradual descent.

Other conditions where trapped gas might develop would be after laparoscopic surgery or a pneumothorax (the leakage of air around a lung). A recently applied plaster cast may also have gas bubbles which could expand during flight and make the cast dangerously tight. Seek medical attention if you think these conditions apply to you.

Content (c) Mark Wise
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