Traveling with COPD
Having chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) does not mean you have to give up traveling.
Many people with COPD still take vacations, visit friends and family, and see the world. It takes some extra planning, but you can go on safe, healthy, and fun trips.
Basic Travel Tips for Someone with COPD
If you are thinking about traveling, start by talking with your health care provider.
This is especially important if:
- You are newly diagnosed with COPD.
- You have had a COPD exacerbation (flare-up) (x-saa-cer-bay-shun) since you traveled the last time.
- You have had a change in medications or have started on supplemental oxygen since you traveled the last time.
Tell your health care provider where you are going, how long you will be gone, and if you will travel by car, train, airplane, or cruise ship. Ask them if you are well enough to travel safely using that method of travel. Make sure your health care provider knows something about the weather, altitude, and climate of the place you will visit. Talk with him or her about the kinds of things that might happen to your health. Together, make a plan for what to do if that happens.
What to take with you
Ask for antibiotics (an-tee-by-ah-ticks) and corticosteroids (kort-te-coe-stair-royds) pills to carry with you in case of an emergency. Plan to also take with you any over-the-counter medications (medications you don’t need a prescription for) you usually use when you have breathing problems.
Have a folder of important medical papers. Even if you keep a lot of information on your smartphone or tablet, it is a good idea to also have it on paper. This way, if the batteries on your phone or tablet run out or if you are in a place with no internet access, you will still have your health information. Keep this with your travel papers.
Make sure you can easily get to this folder at any point in your trip. Include a list of the medications you are taking. If you are on supplemental oxygen, include your oxygen prescription. You may also want to include a letter from your health care provider. The letter should include a brief outline of your condition, and state that you are fit to travel.
- Keep a list of important contact information and phone numbers. This list should include your health care provider and your emergency family contact. It should also include the airline, train, or cruise line on which you are traveling. If there will be a contact person at your final stop, include that. Keep this list in your travel folder.
- Get the name and location of a health care provider and hospital in the city to which you are traveling. If you have planned a long visit, find a health care provider who can care for you while you’re there. Your health care provider’s office staff can help with this. Your friends and family can also help.
- Have all your medications refilled. Leave home with enough medications to last your entire trip. If it is too early to get a refill, tell your pharmacy about your trip. They should be able to help you. No matter how you travel, keep all medications in your carry-on bag. All medications should be labeled and in their original containers. Unfortunately, luggage can be delayed or lost and never recovered. If this happens, medications can be hard to replace.
- Review your health insurance policy before you leave. Some policies do not cover you while you are out of state or out of the country. You may want to get a temporary policy. A travel agent can help you with this.
- Have a travel partner – a spouse, partner, or friend. A travel partner travels along with you. He or she should know what you need and be ready to help you. Your travel partner should understand your medications, the oxygen system you use, and be able to change batteries and adjust the settings.
Traveling with Oxygen
Planning with Your Local Supplier
If you are on oxygen therapy, you will need to make plans for having oxygen with you as you travel. Your oxygen supplier is required to provide you with the right supplies for overnight and for going out and about at your destination. They are not required to provide you with oxygen for actual travel; you are responsible for that.
It is best to work with just one person from your oxygen supplier when possible. Tell that person your plans – where you will be and when – from the time you leave home to the time you get home again. Write down a summary of what you discuss. Send it to them through email or take it to them directly.
Planning with the Supplier at Your Destination
Give your local supplier enough time to make the arrangements for you. Two weeks is usually enough but check with them to make sure. Talk about the supplies and equipment you’ll need at each place and the plans for delivering the equipment. Oxygen suppliers are often members of a network or work with a national chain.
Ask your supplier to give you the name and phone number of the person they made the arrangements with at your destination. A day or two before you arrive, call that person to make sure that everything will be there and ready to use when you get there. This will give them enough time to fix any problems you find.
The plans for traveling with oxygen can be complicated and detailed. But if you plan ahead you will enjoy your travels more!
Working with the Hotel
If you will be staying in a hotel, let them know about your oxygen needs. Tell them that the supplier will be delivering the equipment and that a hotel employee should sign for it. When you check in, have the oxygen delivered to your room. If it has not arrived yet, let the front desk know that it will be arriving soon.
Traveling by Plane
Airplane cabins are pressurized for high altitudes. This means there is less oxygen in the plane during a flight. This is not usually a problem for people with healthy lungs, but it can cause people with COPD to be at risk of having low oxygen levels. If you need oxygen during exercise or sleep, you may also need it for air travel. Talk with your health care provider well before your trip. He or she will decide if you need to have oxygen on the plane.
A test called the high altitude simulation test can determine if you will need supplemental oxygen. Your doctor may want you to take this test.
Note: The emergency oxygen masks on a plane cannot be used by people who need oxygen during a routine flight! This oxygen is for emergency use only if the plane loses cabin pressure.
Taking Your Own Oxygen
If your health care provider says you need to have oxygen on the plane, you must take your own. Portable oxygen concentrators will produce as much as three liters per minute (lpm), giving you oxygen continuously. Most POCs run only with an oxygen conserver or pulse dose, meaning you will get oxygen only when you breathe in. You should know your oxygen needs for different types of activity, and get a POC that will meet your needs.
Airlines based in the United States do not supply oxygen for passengers on domestic flights or on most international flights. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows passengers to bring their own (or rented) POCs on board a plane. The equipment must be one of their approved units. No liquid oxygen concentrators are permitted. To find out which units are FAA approved, visit https://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/cabin_safety/portable_oxygen/.
Most domestic airlines have a form that your health care provider must complete. You can download the form for free from their websites. Each airline's form is unique so you will not be able to use a form from another airline.
You must also call the airline’s health desk and tell them that you will be flying with a POC. They will want to know the brand of the POC and the liter flow you plan to use. Some airlines may require you to carry a specific amount of backup battery capacity based on this information. This is a good time to ask about wheelchair assistance in all airports.
You might be asked for your paperwork at check-in, when you board, and also by a flight attendant. You may also be told you must sit in a window seat, though some airlines allow you to sit in an aisle seat as long as you don’t use your oxygen for taxi, takeoff, or landing.
You must bring enough batteries to last from the first takeoff through the final landing plus 50 percent of that time. If you use supplemental oxygen all the time, you will need more battery time for any layovers or delays. Keep your charging equipment with you in your carry-on. Most airports have plenty of electrical outlets to allow charging between flights. Carry an electric outlet extender.
Using a Wheelchair
When you make your air travel reservations, consider asking for a wheelchair. It can be a long walk to your gate and if you use a POC that will use additional battery time. You might also have a long wait at the security check-in. Being in a wheelchair will get you through security much more quickly.
A wheelchair is helpful if you have a connecting flight. Riding instead of walking will save your energy and reduce your stress. The airline will provide you with a wheelchair and attendant, or they may have a motorized cart waiting for you at your gate. Tipping your wheelchair attendant is suggested.
Reducing the Risk of Infections
The air in a plane is fairly dry. This can put you at an increased risk of getting a lung infection. Being close to other passengers can also put you at risk.
To reduce your risk of infection:
- Drink plenty of water.
- Avoid coffee, tea, and alcohol.
- Ask to be moved to another seat if you are near someone who is coughing or sneezing.
- Consider wearing a mask. This will act as a barrier against airborne droplets.
- Take prescribed antibiotics with you. This will allow you to quickly treat any infection and may keep you from getting much sicker.
- Wash your hands often and carry hand sanitizer.
Traveling by Train
Train travel can be an easy-to-use option. If you use supplemental oxygen, it does require most of the same planning ahead as when traveling by plane. As with any other travel, you should discuss your oxygen needs with your health care provider and your oxygen supplier.
You can bring your own oxygen equipment on the train without an additional charge. It must weigh less than 75 pounds. Oxygen concentrators must be able to run on battery power for up to 12 hours. Plan to have enough oxygen for your entire travel time, plus an extra 20 percent.
There is no smoking allowed on Amtrak trains. If you plan to travel on a train line other than Amtrak, check if they allow smoking. If they do, and if you use oxygen, you must stay only in non-smoking areas of the train.
Traveling by Car
When planning a car trip, keep these things in mind.
Mobile Phone Access
Find out if you will have mobile phone access all along the way. Call your mobile phone carrier or check online.
High altitudes can cause breathing problems even if you don’t normally use supplemental oxygen. Talk about this with your health care provider. Map out your travel route. Plan for your oxygen needs. Find stops along the way where tanks can be replaced
Avoid driving during peak rush hours and try to travel when there is less traffic. Avoid heavily traveled highways. Take back roads if possible, but make sure your mobile phone will get service. Keep the windows up. When weather allows, keep the air conditioning on.
If you are sensitive to certain allergens check if you will be traveling through areas with those allergens.
Make sure your car has recently been serviced: oil changed, fluids checked, spare tire in working condition. Have a jack, jumper cables, flares, blankets, drinking water, and healthy snacks.
If you are on oxygen therapy, plan to have enough tanks to last throughout your trip. Know where you can have empty tanks exchanged for full ones. Take your stationary concentrator with you for use at night.
A car’s electrical system can be modified so you can plug in your concentrator. If you already use a concentrator powered by the car’s electrical system, have this system checked before you leave. Make sure your car’s battery and alternator can handle the extra demand.
Secure extra tanks in your car. Make sure they are not banging around. Keep them in a well-ventilated area. Do not leave oxygen tanks in a hot car or in the trunk.
Taking a Cruise
Many cruise lines allow passengers to travel with oxygen. Talk about this with the cruise line’s special services four to six weeks before the start of your cruise. They must approve your plans. You will probably be required to make your own arrangements for oxygen to be delivered to the ship.
A letter from your health care provider saying that you are approved to travel may be required. This letter should include a list of your current medications, as well as your oxygen needs. There is usually no extra charge for you to bring your oxygen aboard. You will be asked to avoid being in the smoking areas of the ship.
You Can Travel with COPD!
With any type of travel, always discuss your plans with your health care provider. Planning ahead will help you have a safe and healthy trip. COPD does not have to keep you from traveling. With the right planning you can enjoy this freedom!