Traveling for Thanksgiving can feel like the worst. Millions of people descend upon airports for the annual pilgrimage, which can include delays, poor weather, lost luggage, missed connections and other stress. What's more, some unlucky passengers might find themselves beside someone who farts over the hours-long flight.
People passing gas more on planes seems like an urban legend, but do people really fart more on planes? The short answer: Yes.
“It is actually true,” Dr. Patricia Raymond, a private practice gastroenterologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Gastroenterology. “As you gain altitude the gas expands.”
Every day, most people pass two liters of gas by either farting or belching, she said. It’s a normal bodily function that happens gradually as the body metabolizes food. There’s often gas hanging out in the colon. As airplanes ascend the gas expands and causes bloating and pressure that forces the air out.
People are noticing a seeming increase of human gas on planes. Kenyan member of parliament Lilian Achieng Gogo was apparently so concerned she suggested a ban on in-flight flatulence during a debate about aircraft security, according toBritish media. In an essay for the New Yorker in 2010, David Sedaris recalled how flight attendants confessed that everyone gets gassier in the air and “crop dust,” or slowly release gas down the aisles.
According to one article, Gogo thought handing out gas pills might help. But Raymond said that wouldn’t work.
“If it is time for gas to be passed you need to stand your ground and let it go,” Raymond said. “Passing gas does not connote any disrespect.”
When people pass gas on planes that gas has already worked its way through the body and is in the middle of the colon, soon to be released — no matter what. People would have to take gas pills before long getting on the plane to impact in-flight farting. Once people are on the plane there’s little to be done.
“The only thing they could do if they really felt like they needed to deodorize a plane for gas would be to issue charcoal underwear or pads to sit on to neutralize the smelly gas,” Raymond explained.
Some gas, aerophagia, is caused when people ingest air during activities like chewing gum, using a CPAP machine or drinking from water bottles. This kind of gas might sound loud and embarrassing, but it won’t stink.
“These come when you swallow the air,” Raymond said. “It doesn’t smell. It is just atmospheric.”
The gas that smells occurs after the food is in the body, “is eaten by the microbiome in the gut.”
Digestion creates byproducts that cause a stench, such as hydrogen, methane and volatile amines, “which gives off that egg smell,” Raymond said. The smell gets worse when the body struggles to break down foods like meat, milk and cruciferous vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts or cabbage. (Finally there's an excuse to avoid those soggy sides this holiday season).
While farting is perfectly normal, people feel self-conscious and might worry more about it when stuck in a confined space.
There are some ways people be polite seat-mates on a flight by thinking ahead, according to Raymond. Before a trip, avoid anything that's hard to digest, such as lactose or beans. On the flight, just be considerate if that time comes and the smell could be a concern.
“If you feel like you’re going to pass gas go into the bathroom,” she said. “Or bring a small bottle of (air freshener).”
While many of her patients feel horrified by the idea of farting, Raymond says it’s natural and encourages people to relax and let it go.
“There is nothing wrong with the passage of gas,” she said. “A gentle and discrete release of gassy materials is not a big deal.”