Health Risks

There are direct risks to your health through injury and disease. We have broken them down into two main areas, medical and environmental. Either of these can affect you and your performance as a pilot.

Medical conditions can present in many ways, with the more serious issues such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes having a huge effect on you and the safety of your operation. These events have many factors involved including high blood pressure, smoking cigarettes, elevated lipids, obesity, inactivity and stress.

Normally, there will be early indications of problems, especially when having your regular pilot medical examination. The risk of you having a cardiac event is assessed from your test results and is shown as the CV risk percentage.

When flying, other medical factors that can impair your performance are carbon monoxide poisoning, self-medication of over-the-counter remedies and alcohol.

Carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide, CO for short, is a by-product of combustion. It is an odourless, colourless gas, and is a very real problem in general aviation. It normally enters the cockpit and your lungs from the exhaust system – that’s why you check for leaks and broken bits on the preflight. CO can be inhaled through the aircraft heating system because the hot air keeping you warm at altitude comes from heat generated by the engine exhaust. In severe cases, carbon monoxide poisoning can cause hypoxia. Hypoxia is defined as a lack of oxygen to your body tissues causing impairment of function. It can cause you serious loss of performance, and in the worst case death.

You can buy CO detectors for your aircraft to alert you to the presence of CO in the cockpit.

Over-the-counter medications

Prescription and over-the-counter legally available medications come in a huge range. Many are safe for pilots to take. However, there are important questions to consider when using them.

  • What is the condition being treated?
  • Is there any risk of impairment or loss of personal performance?
  • What are the side-effects, if any?
  • What about the effects on my flying, especially at altitude?

The side-effects of medication can be extensive, and typical examples include impairment of decision making and memory, and attention to task. You may also experience an altered mood, vision problems, hearing and balance issues, allergic reactions or an upset tummy.

When flying, the illness being treated may have an adverse effect on the stresses of the flight. For example, mild hypoxia may make a heart condition more serious at altitude.

A combination of alcohol and most medications can be unpredictable. This could have a strong effect on your personal performance.


Cold exposure could include frost-bite and hypothermia. Mild hypothermia will cause an increase in your heart rate and shivering. You will also notice the production of extra urine as the body tries to minimise the heat loss. You may become confused and want to start sleeping. You will not be able to complete simple tasks and coordination will be lost.

So plan for your flight and have all the equipment, clothing and supplies of water and sunscreen you might need. Be prepared.


Aviation is rich in vibration sources, including engines, systems such as hydraulics and aerodynamic effects, including turbulence.

It can create fatigue, interfere with vision and speech, disrupt your sleep and concentration, and may lead to back and neck problems.

Talk to your engineer about vibrations, and make sure you are seated comfortably in your aircraft. If possible, stay isolated from vibration through padding or a change of position. Exercise your back and neck at regular intervals, especially on long flights, or a long operating period such as during agricultural operations.

Spatial disorientation

Other environmental factors include spatial disorientation. This is where you cannot correctly interpret the aircraft attitude, altitude, or speed in relation to a reference point such as the horizon. It is a very real factor you can look forward to experiencing sometime in your flying life. Talk to your instructor for more information on this and other visual illusions you might experience.

Trapped gas

Ear and sinus pain has probably affected you at some stage of your flying, especially at higher altitudes. Any trapped gas in the middle air, sinuses and stomach will expand with altitude during a climb and vent from the body. During descent, it may not be possible to re-fill all these cavities and the pressure difference across the ear drum will cause pain. This will be worse if you are flying with a cold as the inflamed and swollen mucous membranes make it more difficult to equalise the pressure. If one ear clears and the other stays blocked, vertigo may occur with sudden dizziness. This can be very disabling and even incapacitating.

Don’t fly with a cold, or any illness, and if you are taking medication make sure you know the effects of it on your system.


Noise is a part of our everyday lives. Flying our GA aircraft, working around jet engines or even the lawn mower, all produce noise. Noise is defined as any sound that is unwanted, unpleasant or damaging.

Apart from causing hearing loss from long-term exposure to noise, it can make you grumpy, fatigued, distracted and interfere with your wellbeing.

A good quality headset with noise-cancelling technology and ear plugs for further noise cancelling should help. Don’t let the noise make you deaf; I SAID, DON’T LET THE NOISE MAKE YOU DEAF.

Thermal stress

Thermal stress is when you are either too hot or too cold.

Heat disorders due to an excessive heat range from sunburn through to heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and ultimately heat stroke, which leaves you incapacitated.

Heat exhaustion happens when your body loses water and salt. You may feel weak, fatigued, sweaty and your judgement is likely to be impaired. You may suffer nausea and vomiting. Heat stroke is more serious, where the body temperature rises rapidly and you simply shut down.

Fluid intake is the answer. As we saw in the fatigue section, you need to take on water regularly, especially if it is hot in the cabin, or you have a high physical work rate.