You should never fall asleep on an airplane during take-off, and here's why
As somebody who is absolutely petrified of flying, I usually try my best to fall asleep as soon as I get on the plane. That way, I don't have to think about being trapped in a tin can that's going to be propelled into the air at a billion miles an hour. And I don't have to make small-talk with the passenger in the adjacent seat, which is an added bonus.
However, it turns out that I - and a ton of other people - have been making a huge mistake by doing this. Recent research has proven that taking a sneaky nap before the airplane has left the runway is a bad idea, and it has nothing to do with missing the (always thrilling) in-flight safety talk.
According to the website MedlinePlus, sleeping while the plane is taking off or landing can actually cause ear problems for passengers, and it's all to do with the change in air pressure.
Obviously, the air pressure on the ground is different to the pressure 37,000 feet in the air. Your body has to adjust to this pressure, which is why your ears pop when you're on a plane - or when you're underwater/underground too. However, if you're asleep, it's much harder for the body to acclimatise to the shift in pressure, and could lead to problems such as dizziness, infections, and eardrum damage.
Pharmacist Angela Chalmers elaborates on this in a much more science-y way, explaining that:
"A quick change in altitude affects the air pressure in the ear. This leads to a vacuum in the Eustachian tubes which makes the ears feel blocked and sound dull. Try not to sleep during takeoff and descent as you will not be swallowing as frequently and this can lead to blocked ears."
In the most severe cases, pressure changes have been known to cause hearing loss and nosebleeds. This is why it is recommended to chew gum or suck a boiled sweet during ascent and descent, as the added saliva encourages more swallowing, which in turn helps to unblock your ears through the pressure changes.
There's actually a whole bunch of other obscure stuff that could be a health risk on airplanes too, including ice, travel blankets, and simply sitting down for too long.
Water and ice dispensed on airplanes come from tanks which are usually pretty old, and therefore at risk of harbouring bacteria. Most airlines won't serve tap water for this reason, but the ice often comes from the same reserves. In order to stay safe, then, you should stick to bottled water.
Travel blankets are also bacteria havens, and could be passed between several passengers without being washed. Just think about how many bare feet have been wrapped in those blankets, or how many children with runny noses have decided to take a nap while snuggled up in the fleecy sheet. Still think it's a good idea to use one? Nope, didn't think so.
And yes, literally just staying sat down for too long on a flight can also cause health problems. Remaining sedentary for long periods on a flight is much riskier than doing so on the ground, and can cause a condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT) - a blood clot that normally forms in the legs. But don't worry too much, as DVT can be easily prevented by taking a walk up and down the aisles, or simply doing some leg exercises in your seat.
In the grand scheme of things, flying is actually one of the safest ways of travelling, and your biggest concern is more likely to be a screaming child than a severe medical condition. Just stay awake, watch out for potential germ-infestations, and take a little stroll every now and then.