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Jet Lag

What jet lag?

Jet lag is a general feeling of fatigue, listlessness and disorientation, accompanied by headaches and disrupted sleep, after travelling long distances in an aircraft.

Can I get any medication to prevent jet lag?

The Online Clinic can prescribe Melatonin off-label for patients wishing to avoid jet lag. The medication is prescribed in advance of your trip for next day delivery. You just need to complete a short medical questionnaire so we can check that Melatonin is suitable for you.

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Who gets jet lag?

Anyone, particularly older people, travelling long distances for work or pleasure may experience jet lag.

What causes jet lag?

Your internal ‘body clock’ controls your natural 24-hour body rhythm, known as your circadian rhythm. Your body is accustomed to the timing of daylight and darkness that occur each 24 hours where you live - in your so-called ‘time zone’. It tells you when to wake, eat, and sleep. Different countries have different time zones, and when you cross into a new time zone your usual day-night routine is ‘out of sync’; it is altered and your circadian rhythm is disrupted. How long your body clock takes to adjust to the new time zone’s 24-hour routine will depend on how many time zones you have crossed. Additionally, the direction in which you travel can influence the severity of your symptoms. Generally, travelling east (when you lose hours and have a shorter day) is more troublesome than travelling west (when you gain hours and have a longer day); sleeping later when travelling west is generally easier than trying to sleep at an earlier time than you are used to.

What are the symptoms of jet lag?

Your symptoms will largely depend on how many time zones you have crossed; this will vary between individuals. These factors also determine how long symptoms last, although this is usually only one or two days. You may feel generally unwell, light headed, and confused and have problems concentrating. Your sleep habits, appetite and digestion and other body functions may be affected.

How you can help yourself to avoid jet lag

Certain behaviours can increase your risk or worsen the symptoms of jet lag, while others will reduce the effects of jet lag. Being stressed, dehydrated, and having insufficient sleep before your journey will not help. However, altering the time that you go to bed to match that of your destination a few days before travelling may help. Throughout the flight, drink water and briefly snooze, stretch your legs in the chair, occasionally getting up to walk (keeping active can avoid potentially serious deep vein thrombosis, (i.e. a blood clot). Avoid drinking alcohol and caffeinated drinks on your journey. When you get to your destination, it may help if you immediately adopt the new time zone’s day-night routine, especially its meal and sleep times. Adjustment to the new time will also be facilitated if you stay outside in the natural light and avoid sleeping before the new bedtime.

How is jet lag treated?

The naturally occurring hormone melatonin is involved in regulating your body clock including your day-night cycle. Your body produces melatonin as soon as darkness begins to fall (making you sleepy) and stops around dawn when it begins to get light (enabling you to awake). Melatonin is used as a medicine for sleeping problems associated with jet lag. It works best the greater the number of time zones crossed and for eastwards travel. Travelling west for only a few days may best be approached by staying with your usual time zone’s routine. Sleeping pills may also help you to adjust to a sleep time but are generally avoided due to the risk of side effects and addiction. On the other hand, caffeine may help you stay awake.

When should I get help for jet lag?

If you know that you have problems adjusting to new sleep times when you travel long distances, your doctor will be able to advise you on ways to alleviate the problems associated with jet lag. For those taking medicines, one thing to note is that a change in time zone will likely alter the time that you take your medicine. Seek advice from your doctor about what you should do.

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Reviewed by: Dr Loraine Haslam MBBS, DRCOG, DFSRH, LoC SDI, LoC IUT, MRCGP
GMC registration number: 4524038
Date: 30 October 2023
Next review: 29 October 2025
All UK registered doctors can have their registration checked on
The Medical Register at the GMC website.
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