Should you postpone your travel plans when ill?

The recent incident involving the woman who died mid-air has drawn attention to travelers who choose to fly when seriously ill. CNN ran an article offering advice for those who fly while sick, and to summarize, they advise against it. I consider myself a student of remote medicine and medical care with limited resources, and I am finding it difficult to think of a more remote, under-equipped location than a commercial airliner at 30,000 feet.

The CNN article discussed a company called MedAire and their advice to consider postponing flight plans when ill. The basic theory is that if someone is sick on the ground, their condition will likely be exacerbated by the cabin pressure, making them worse. MedAire reports that they receive approximately 50 in-flight calls per day from pilots with sick passengers and documented 97 on-board deaths for 2007.

Federal law requires that all US commercial airliners carry basic medical supplies including an AED (automatic external defibrillator), oxygen and a basic medical kit. The purpose of the AED is to detect a lethal cardiac arrhythmia and deliver a lifesaving shock, that hopefully converts the heart to a safe rhythm. The contents of the medical kit vary, but generally include aspirin, nitroglycerin, alcohol swabs, anti-histamines, broncho-dilators, epinephrine, dextrose, a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope, shears and IV tubing with saline fluid. The article also points out that although flight attendants have training in handling in-flight emergencies, they are not medically trained.

Perhaps the most important lesson that can be learned from this article is that a traveler is ultimately responsible for their own safety and well-being at all times. There is a tendency to take for granted the fact that most people reading this live in areas where an ambulance service and trained medical care are merely a phone call away. This is not always the case when traveling — especially at 30,000 feet above the ground.

Some basic pre-planning for a flight should include a carry-on bag with ample supply of medications and a list of medical conditions. Loose, comfortable clothing and proper hydration cannot be stressed enough.

A very good and informative article from the Aerospace Medical Association offers some tips for healthy airline travel.