December 3, 2007 / 3:41 PM / 12 years ago

Air travel with serious lung disease can be safe

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - People with emphysema and other serious lung diseases can safely travel by airplane, but they should be evaluated by their doctor beforehand, according to researchers.

In a study of 500 lung disease patients surveyed after a planned a flight, British researchers found that 18 percent suffered 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, the researchers report in the European Respiratory Journal.

Importantly, though, all of the study participants were evaluated by a lung specialist before their flight, and 11 percent of all patients ended up canceling 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.

The findings suggest that even serious lung disease need not be a barrier to flying, according to the researchers, led by Dr. Robina K. Coker of Hammersmith Hospital and the Imperial College London.

“We would advise that patients with serious lung disease check with their doctor before they fly to ensure the doctor is happy with them traveling and that they have enough medication to cover their trip,” Coker told Reuters Health.

The study included patients recruited from 37 respiratory medicine clinics in the UK. Of 616 patients who were planning to travel by air, 500 completed questionnaires within two weeks of their flight.

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.

As mentioned, 18 percent reported having some symptoms while in the air. There was also some evidence that patients’ health problems rose after flying. In the month before flying, 9 percent made unscheduled doctor visits for respiratory problems; that 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, Coker said.

For now, she and her colleagues conclude, the current findings should “provide reassurance” to lung disease patients that, after careful evaluation by their doctor, air travel is “relatively safe.”

SOURCE: European Respiratory Journal, December 2007.

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