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Air travel safe with serious lung diseases

European Respiratory Journal, November 2007
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People with emphysema and other serious lung diseases can safely travel by airplane, but they need to be evaluated by their doctor beforehand.

British researchers from the Hammersmith Hospital and the Imperial College London, surveyed 616 lung disease patients after they took a planned flight out of which 500 returned the questionnaire within 2 weeks of their return.

While most of the patients had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of lung diseases that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, the second-most common condition was diffuse parenchymal lung disease, a collection of conditions marked by inflammation and scarring of the lung tissue. It was found that 18 percent suffered from some type of respiratory symptom on the plane - most commonly shortness of breath, coughing and chest pain. However, the symptoms were typically moderate, and there were no serious incidents requiring an emergency landing.

There was also some evidence that patients' health problems rose after flying. In the month before flying, 9 percent of the patients made unscheduled doctor visits for respiratory problems. This figure rose to 19 percent during the post-flight month. Most often, these patients needed antibiotics for respiratory infections. It's not clear, however, whether those infections were related to air travel.

All the participants were evaluated by a lung specialist before their flight and 11 percent of them ended up cancelling their plans. This was often because their doctor advised against it. In other cases, the need to travel with supplemental oxygen was the obstacle; some patients did not want to do it, while others could not because the airline prohibited it. In total, 12 patients died, seven before flying and five within 1 month. In those who flew, unscheduled medical care increased from 9% in the 4 weeks prior to travel to 19% in the 4 weeks after travel. However, when compared with self-reported data during the preceding year, medical consultations increased by just 2%.

The findings provide reassurance to lung disease patients that, after careful evaluation by their doctor, air travel is relatively safe.

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