Cold Prevention at 35,000 Feet

To start out, I’m a pilot. I’ve been both a flight instructor and an airline pilot. And when you walk through airports, among thousands of coughing, sneezing, nose-wiping people and then sit in a cockpit that’s been used by literally hundreds of pilots in the past month, you get a pretty good idea of what keeps you from catching colds.

When I was a flight instructor, I remember one particularly horrible cold experience, one that REALLY made me wish there was a common cold cure. It was early in the season and I’d caught a little old common cold. One student needed to do a lot of high altitude maneuvering. My cold wasn’t really a bad one, just your common cold that makes you sniff like crazy unless you’re smart enough to carry around tissues. I didn’t, so for a straight week, as my nasal congestion got worse, I flew with this student up 5,000 feet in an unpressurized aircraft to do air work. By day 4 I had INCREDIBLY painful pressure building up in my ears and actually cancelled our flight on day 5. I went and saw a doctor for a COMMON COLD because I just couldn’t deal with the pain anymore.

Once I got to the airlines, I was a little smarter. I knew how painful a cold could be at that elevation, so I was prepared. Here are some of the things I did.

First, I started taking a good multi-vitamin, one with a LOT of vitamin C, and I took it faithfully every day. I also tried to eat healthy, including lots of fruits, vegetables, and especially certain kinds of food, like broccoli, yogurt, garlic (NOT in excess, cockpits are small places), and other immune-boosting foods. Second, I got plenty of exercise because it came with the territory. Ever walked from end to end in a big international airport? Try doing it at least 5 times a day. Third, I got serious about cleanliness. Pilots tend to be kind of germophobes, and while I’m not, I DID start using sanitizing wipes on equipment in the cockpit. After all that, I got as much rest as possible, a full 8 hours almost every night, which contributes greatly to overall immune system health.

I’m not saying doing all this will cure a cold, but it will sure help in cold prevention. And I’ll tell you from my experience as a pilot, preventing an emergency is a lot better than dealing with one!