Tips for sleeping well on flights

Long plane trips often mean resorting to “a little something” to help you or the kids sleep. Contrary to what you might think, snoozing for hours on sleeping pills or sedatives won’t necessarily help — and might even harm you or your child.
Natural sleep is the best way to ensure you wake up feeling refreshed and ready for your holiday. Here we discuss some reasons why taking sleeping pills can be dangerous and give tips to help you and the kids rest safely while in the air.

Sleeping pills and flying can be a dangerous mix

Travellers often take medicines on flights to help them sleep, including ‘benzodiazepines’ such as diazepam (e.g. Valium) or temazepam (e.g. Normison), zolpidem (e.g. Stilnox), or an antihistamine medicine like diphenhydramine (e.g. Snuzaid).

Talk to your doctor before your flight if you are thinking about taking sleeping pills. They can cause serious side effects and should always be used with care.
Sleeping pills often leave you feeling drowsy or disoriented, and some can even bring on bizarre behaviours and memory loss. They increase the chance of falls and accidents (especially in older people) and possibly death.

Some other medicines and alcohol can also worsen side effects with sleeping pills; and these aren’t the only risks for air travellers.
The recent death of a previously healthy 36-year-old woman who took zolpidem on a long-haul flight highlights this. She had been sleeping in the one position for seven hours, developed a deep vein thrombosis (DVT – blood clots in the legs), and collapsed after getting up because a piece of the clot broke away and went to her lungs.
Although this is a ‘worst case scenario’, Dr Philippa Binns, clinical advisor at NPS MedicineWise, agrees that taking sleeping pills during flights can contribute to the increased risk of DVT when flying.
“Sleeping pills can sedate you to the extent you don’t move much during your flight. Although DVT from flying is rare, getting even small clots in your legs or lungs from lack of movement is dangerous,” says Dr Binns.

Don’t sedate young kids with antihistamines

Some parents give their children a sedating antihistamine for sleep, such as promethazine (e.g. Phenergan), but this can actually make things worse.

Rather than being sedated, children can become excitable, or even have hallucinations or fits. Although these side effects are rare with sedating antihistamines, they should be avoided especially in very young children. Promethazine in particular should not be given to a child younger than two years, as it can cause severe breathing problems and possibly infant death syndrome.

Natural or herbal remedies for sleep

Some people take melatonin for jet lag. This hormone is produced naturally in the body to regulate when you sleep and wake.

Research has found that melatonin is only beneficial in around half of people who take it. Melatonin may also cause side effects (most commonly daytime sleepiness, dizziness and headaches) or affect your other medicines or medical conditions.

These problems are also possible with other natural or herbal medicines used for sleep, such as valerian and L-tryptophan.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist before taking any medicine for sleep, including natural or herbal remedies. You can also call NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) for more information about your prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (including herbal, ‘natural’, vitamins and mineral supplements).

Sharing medicines is also a bad idea

If your doctor prescribes you sleeping pills, never share them with anyone else. They have been recommended for your personal circumstances and could be harmful to another person. The best medicine for you may not be the same for someone else.

Get a natural night’s sleep

Aside from the risks, sleeping pills don’t enable you to sleep as deeply as your body needs to, so you may not feel rested when you arrive at your destination.

Here are some things you can do on your flight to help you or your child sleep well without medicines:

  • avoid caffeinated, alcoholic or sugary drinks (drink plenty of water instead)
  • take a comfortable blow up or soft U-shaped travel pillow with you
  • bring your child’s favourite bedtime toy on the plane
  • switch off your overhead lights and wear an eye mask (this also lets people know not to disturb you)
  • wear ear plugs to block out noise
  • ensure you’re not too hot or cold (use a blanket or wear multiple layers of clothing you can remove as needed)
  • unwind by doing some breathing exercises or other relaxation techniques, or listen to relaxing music
  • settle your child with a bedtime story or other activity (e.g. colouring books)
  • have a warm milk drink (this may help you fall asleep)
  • if you can’t get to sleep after 20 minutes or so, try getting up and moving around the cabin before attempting sleep again.
  • If you’re going on a long-haul journey, consider booking an overnight flight that coincides with your and your child’s sleep routine.

For more information about sleep problems visit the NPS MedicineWise website.

This article is supplied by NPS MedicineWise, providing independent information on medicines and medical tests, funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Health and Ageing.

If you have questions about your medicines, talk to your doctor, pharmacist or call the NPS MedicinesLine 1300 MEDICINE ( 1300 633 424 ). Learn more about medicine and medical tests at their website

For more top tips about travel and medicines visit NPS MedicineWise.

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