COPD Foundation Blog

Find inspirational stories, tips from the COPD Coach, events, and current news on the COPD community blog. Have a question regarding COPD that you would like to share with our community? Contact our COPD Coach. Coaches Corner is aimed at providing information for individuals with COPD to take to your doctor, and is not in any way intended to be medical advice. If you would like to submit a question to the Coaches Corner email us at coachescorner@copdfoundation.org. We would love to hear your questions and comments.

Want to connect? Join our community today.

Safe to Travel?

5 Comments   |   
Like 5 Likes

Dear COPD Coach,
I have COPD but do not yet require supplemental oxygen. I am planning to fly to visit my son. The flight is scheduled to be two legs, one lasting 1 hour and the other two hours. Is it safe for me to fly even though I do not use oxygen?

-Ready to Travel

Dear Ready,
Your question is a very good one! Like most of the questions we get, the answer is not simple, and the short answer is a definite "maybe." I'll explain.

In all commercial air travel, the planes are pressurized. How much they are pressurized depends on the size of the plane and the altitude it at which it flies. Most large planes flying above 30,000 feet would be pressurized to an altitude of up to 8,000 feet. To give you some perspective, the altitude of Denver is 5,300 feet and has about 17% less oxygen than cities at sea level. The smaller regional jets generally fly around 20,000 feet and thus usually are only pressurized to around 6,000 feet.

Safe to Travel At any pressurization, people with normal lung functions will usually measure a drop in their oxygen saturations, especially on long flights. On the other hand, someone with compromised lungs will usually experience a substantial drop in their saturations. For a person with normal lung function, the worse they will suffer is sleepiness but usually recover their saturations very quickly afterthey land. A person with breathing difficulties will most often experience head and muscle aches, saturations below 90 and require a significant time to recover their oxygen saturations once they land.

Since there are no readily available tests to determine how you will fare in flight, it will require a guess on the part of your pulmonologist. A test has been developed using a formula using an algorithm based on a study of 100 COPD patients with moderate to severe COPD. While the results tend to over-estimate the number of patients requiring in-flight oxygen, they are considered a safe “estimate” as to who can safely fly.

Here is how the algorithm works:

If the patient has resting saturations of less than 92% they require supplemental oxygen in-flight. If a patient’s 6-minute walk test results drop to an O2 Sat (oxygen saturation) in the low 80% range, that person will require supplemental oxygen.

Ultimately, it is up to your pulmonologist to determine if it is safe for you to fly. You can use supplemental oxygen on a commercial flight only with a doctor’s prescription. Furthermore, if you do not qualify based on the results of the algorithm, it does not mean that you will not experience ill effects from flying, especially on long duration flights. Feel free to share this information with your respiratory health care professional and ask about following this guideline.

If you do not use supplemental oxygen to fly, you can do the following to help make the trip more pleasant:

  • Take your pulse oximeter with you, and measure your saturations frequently during flight.
  • If your saturations begin to drop below 90, begin pursed lips breathing.
  • Stay relaxed during the flight, and don’t be in a hurry to deplane.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine prior to, and during, the flight.
  • If your saturations drop into the 80% range, notify your doctor.

If you do need supplemental oxygen, check out our Big Fat Reference guide at www.copdbfrg.org for helpful hints.

Good luck and have a nice flight!

-The COPD Coach

Ask the Expert is aimed at providing information for individuals with COPD to take to your doctor, and is not in any way intended to be medical advice. If you would like to submit a question to the Coaches Corner email us at coachescorner@copdfoundation.org. We would love to hear your questions and comments. You can address your emails to any of the following: COPD Coach, Caregiver Coach, COPD Doctor or COPD RT.

5 Comments



You need to login to comment.
  • Cr
    This is helpful. I was really short of breath last winter on a short flight and got so anxious I made it worse. I am just noticing the effects of copd after a my very first long bout of bronchitis ever. Now I'm terrified to visit my daughter who wants me there when she has her first baby. Yikes!!!
    Reply
    • Your doctor will be able to help you navigate this - I understand that you want to be there for the birth of your grandchild, so talk to your doctor and see what he would recommend for you. Never hurts to ask!
      Reply
  • If you're really concerned, I can suggest two things. One is that there is a High Altitude Simulation Test that can be done if they have the right equipment to see how you adjust to altitude, so you really can know whether you'll likely need supplemental O2 to fly. If you can't have the test for whatever reason, see if you can rent, beg, borrow or steal a Portable O2 Concentrator to use on the flight. Take your oximeter with you and check occasionally to see if you're sats drop below 90. If they do, pop the POC on and you'll be good to go.

    I flew to and from Miami last weekend, and on three of the legs I didn't have to use my POC at all because the cabins were pressurized well enough that it wasn't necessary. I did need it on the other legs, so not all planes are created equal and definitely not all airlines! You can count on the cabins being pressurized somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 feet......but that's a big variation! So if you're concerned, take a POC with you.

    Jean
    Reply
    • Thanks for bringing the High Altitude Simulation Test up, Jean. I didn't know about it so I did more research and thought I'd share an article I read. This is very cool, to say the least: http://www.rtmagazine.com/2013/03/high-altitude-simulation-test-everything-else-is-just-a-guess/
      Reply
  • I've had COPD for some time now. I've traveled quite a bit and never had any problems yet. My dream is to go to Colorado and new Mexico. They are both very high altitude States so I'm pretty sure I'll need oxygen for any trip like that. I had a problem in Arizona and couldn't wait to leave there but thankfully the plane was alright. I also have afib and kidney problems so I'm sceptical about my dream trip. I try to exercise every day on the treadmill or stationary bike. It's hard to believe people still smoke. To all of you COPD folks I send my best wishes. Hope you all get to do the things you want to do.
    Reply

Join Us on COPD360social

Sign In to Participate
Or register to become a member

COPD360social Blog Named Best COPD Blog of 2016 by HealthLine

Smoked