Experts Warn Against Drinking Alcohol on Planes: Essential Tips If You Must

 Experts Warn Against Drinking Alcohol on Planes: Essential Tips If You Must

(Image: Getty Images)

Getting drunk on a plane might sound like a fun way to start a vacation, but experts warn that drinking at 30,000 feet has unique health risks. We asked experts to explain what happens to your body when you drink alcohol on a plane and why you might want to think twice before flagging down a flight attendant for a round or two of those mini liquor bottles.

You Actually Get Drunk Faster

Dr. Thomas Pontinen, physician and co-founder of MAPS Centers for Pain Control, explains that higher altitudes mean lower oxygen levels and atmospheric pressure. In normal altitudes, oxygen binds with hemoglobin to transport oxygen throughout the body and keep vital processes running, including the body’s ability to flush alcohol.

“The lower our oxygen levels, the harder it is to metabolize and eliminate alcohol,” he says. Drinking alcohol exacerbates these compromised oxygen levels because it prevents some oxygen from attaching to hemoglobin, leading to dizziness, headache, and confusion.

You’re More Likely to Dehydrate

The air inside planes has low humidity levels—about 10%-20% compared to the typical 35%-65% humidity on land. This dry cabin air can lead to dehydration, causing classic symptoms such as dizziness, headache, and fatigue. Dr. Elizabeth Sharp notes that you may drink less water on a plane while binge-watching movies or snoozing, and consuming alcohol on top of that heightens the dehydration risk. Pontinen adds that alcohol is a diuretic, which further intensifies dehydration.

Increased Blood Clot Risk

Dehydration combined with prolonged sitting during flights increases the risk of developing blood clots, also known as deep vein thrombosis. “It’s not just the alcohol,” says Dr. Leonard Pianko. “It’s the effect of alcohol combined with what you eat, what medications you take, digestion, and sleep. What I worry about most is that individuals who drink alcohol take a sleeping pill and cross their legs, which can lead to increased blood clotting.”

Drinking and Sleeping on Planes May Harm Your Heart

Alcohol increases the risk of heart disease by weakening heart muscles and raising blood pressure. A June 2024 study examined the combined effects of cabin pressure, drinking alcohol, and then sleeping on long flights. Findings showed that even healthy participants experienced cardiac strain in the form of lowered blood oxygen levels and an increased heart rate, causing hypoxia and disrupting deep sleep.

These effects pose a particular risk to those with heart issues. Researchers recommend that people with obstructive sleep apnea or obesity hypoventilation syndrome avoid alcohol for 12 hours before flying. More generally, they suggest restricting access to alcohol on flights due to the potential heart health risks.

While it’s best to avoid alcohol entirely during a flight, Dr. Sharp recommends drinking a glass of water for every alcoholic beverage consumed and drinking in moderation—no more than two drinks, even on long-haul flights.

Related post