Between Zika-virus warnings, intimidating airport metal detectors, and germy airplane seats, it’s easy to feel like vacationing when you’re pregnant is more trouble than treat. But with a little know-how and some reassurance, traveling while you’re expecting can be relatively painless. Find out how to handle four common concerns so you and your bump can fly without fear.
If you’ve turned on the news in the last year, you already know that becoming infected with this Zika virus during pregnancy can be devastating. The mosquito-borne infection can cause a baby to develop microcephaly (a condition characterized by poor brain development) and has also been linked to miscarriage and a rare nervous-system disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome in the mother. To protect yourself, the most effective tactic is also the most obvious one: Avoid areas that have active Zika infections. Visit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a list of countries and states that are off-limits. And no matter where you roam, avoid mosquito bites. Stay inside places that are well air-conditioned when possible (mosquitoes prefer warm, humid air), and wear long sleeves outdoors. “You should also use an EPA-registered insect repellent with at least 20 percent DEET,” says ob-gyn Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Worried about getting through security? Both types of scanners used in U.S. airports—the traditional metal detector and the millimeter wave scanner (that round phonebooth-like machine)—are safe, says Sherry Ross, M.D., an ob-gyn at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, in Santa Monica, California. The former does not emit any radiation, and the latter beams low-frequency electromagnetic waves like those used in microwaves. Unlike medical X-rays, these waves don’t penetrate the skin. The largest dose of radiation actually comes through the plane via cosmic radiation from the sun and other stars. The amount you absorb on each flight varies considerably based on the altitude and latitude; exposure goes up as the plane rises and moves farther from the equator. “Two or three cross-country flights during pregnancy should be safe, and many would argue that more than that is fine,” says Anate Aelion Brauer, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at NYU School of Medicine.
During pregnancy your blood becomes more concentrated, which is called hypercoagulation. Research has shown that this puts you at a fourfold relative risk for the blood clots known as deep vein thrombosis, or DVT. Sitting still for hours at a time on an airplane raises this risk even further. To offset the danger, drink plenty of water, because dehydration from low cabin humidity can make your blood thicker than usual. Just as important: Walk the aisles, do a few stretches every couple of hours, and pump your calves while you’re seated (alternate between pressing your toes and heels into the floor). Also, consider wearing graduated elastic compression stockings.
Nothing puts a damper on a relaxing babymoon like a bad cold—and, unfortunately, a study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research found that the risk of catching a virus in the air is 100 times greater than it is on the ground. To protect yourself, keep your hands off germy spots such as seat pockets and tray tables. Swabbing them down with disinfectant wipes won’t sanitize them completely, but it’s better than nothing. You should also wash your hands before, during, and after the flight; refrain from touching your face while on the plane; and make sure your flu vaccine is up-to-date before you board. And it’s wise to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer throughout your journey.