Fitness to fly in patients with lung disease

Trevor T. Nicholson*, Jacob I. Sznajder

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations

Abstract

Patients with chronic lung disease may have mild hypoxemia at sea level. Some of these cases may go unrecognized, and even among those who are known to be hypoxemic, some do not use supplemental oxygen. During air travel in a hypobaric hypoxic environment, compensatory pulmonary mechanisms may be inadequate in patients with lung disease despite normal sea-level oxygen requirements. In addition, compensatory cardiovascular mechanisms may be less effective in some patients who are unable to increase cardiac output. Air travel also presents an increased risk of venous thromboembolism. Patients with cystic lung disease may also be at increased risk of pneumothorax. Although overall this risk appears to be relatively low, should a pneumothorax occur, it could present a significant challenge to the patient with chronic lung disease, particularly if hypoxemia is already present. As such, a thorough assessment of patients with chronic lung disease and cardiac disease who are contemplating air travel should be performed. The duration of the planned flight, the anticipated levels of activity, comorbid illnesses, and the presence of risk factors for venous thromboembolism are important considerations. Hypobaric hypoxic challenge testing reproduces an environment most similar to that encountered during actual air travel; however, it is not widely available. Assessment for hypoxia is otherwise best performed using a normobaric hypoxic challenge test. Patients in need of supplemental oxygen need to contact the airline and request this accommodation during flight. They should also be advised on arranging portable oxygen concentrators before air travel, and a discussion of the potential risks of travel should take place.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1614-1622
Number of pages9
JournalAnnals of the American Thoracic Society
Volume11
Issue number10
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 1 2014

Keywords

  • Air travel complications
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Hypoxia
  • Hypoxic challenge testing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine

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