The information here provided is for
educational purposes only and it is not intended nor implied to be a
substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult your own
physician or healthcare provider with any questions you may have
regarding a medical condition.
Recent airline statistics in the United States indicate that up to 10%
of in-flight medical emergencies involve lung disease, and that these
emergencies involving lung disease are the third most common medical
reason for emergency landings.
Lung disease sufferers have special needs as a result of the drop in air
pressure in aircraft cabins. Commercial aircraft flying at high altitudes
are designed to have cabin pressure equivalent to an altitude of 2438
meters (8,000ft.). However, it is not uncommon to find a variation in his
altitude equivalent of 2700 meters (8,860ft.). While in flight, the
partial pressure of oxygen (PaO2), which reflects the quantity of oxygen
transported in the blood, can fall from the 80 to 100 mmHg normal for
healthy people at sea level, to 53-64 mmHg. This drop is easily tolerated
by people with healthy lungs. However, for those with lung disease, it can
have a significant impact.
In the December issue of the EUROPEAN RESPIRATORY JOURNAL,
Dr.Robina K. Coker and her team at the Department of Respiratory
Medicine, Hammersmith Hospital, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust,
London, UK report the following:
Total Study:3 months before their scheduled flight, 616 patients with
various lung diseases were recruited from 37 different clinics
- 54% had asthma or COPD
- 23% had interstitial lung disease
- 275 had hypoxia tests with half of them then recommended for
in-flight oxygen therapy
- Just over 10% of the 617 did not fly for various reasons.
431 patients returned questionnaires after their trip. Of these:
- 18% suffered respiratory symptoms on one or both legs of their
- 77% - breathlessness
- 44% - cough
- 23% - chest pain
In most reports, these were usually moderate
- 5 did require in flight medical attention,
but only one for an exacerbation and none required emergency
Post flight results.
- 5 patients died within 30 days of the flight.
This was considered a low death rate at under 1%
- Most notable, 81 patients visited their Doctor within 4 weeks -
65% of these were prescribed antibiotics
The EUROPEAN RESPIRATORY JOURNAL article states: This major
multicentre prospective study thus proves that even a severe lung
condition is not a contra-indication for flying, as long as the
patient undergoes a thorough medical examination beforehand.
Dr Coker is quoted as saying: "Patients should also check before
flying that they have insurance cover(age) and, if necessary, obtain
extra cover(age) for oxygen," She adds: "But even if all precautions
are taken, there can be no absolute guarantee that everything will go
We can see from the above that COPD should not stop us from flying.
With good preplanning, including medical evaluations, good in flight
procedures including supplemental O2 as needed, and post fight
attentiveness to such things as infections etc. we can and should continue
to be active.
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