Concerns about Flying

Have you been invited to attend a special event on the other side of the country? Do you want to celebrate your 35th wedding anniversary in Paris? Are you a veteran traveler who can't quite shake the travel bug? No matter where you want to go, if your travel plans entail flying, there's usually no need to let a chronic lung condition keep you grounded—even if you use supplemental oxygen.

If you depend on supplemental oxygen day to day, there's little doubt that you'll also need it on a plane. But even if you don't ordinarily use supplemental oxygen on land, there's still a chance you could require it during a flight. In either case, as you start making your travel arrangements, you'll want to
a) check with your doctor to determine your need for oxygen and
b) do advance planning to make sure any oxygen you require is available when you're ready to depart.

What Happens on a Plane

Commercial airliners typically cruise at an altitude of 30,000 to 40,000 feet above sea level. At that elevation, the air is extremely thin, and oxygen is so sparse that even people with normal lung function would need assistance to breathe.

For the safety of passengers and crew, airlines are required to pressurize the cabin so that the atmosphere is equivalent to the atmosphere at a maximum elevation of 8,000 feet above sea level. This still means less oxygen to breathe than you have at sea level, and it can lead to a drop in the oxygen levels in your blood (desaturation).

While most people can tolerate this situation without problems, having chronic lung disease increases the risk that you will develop hypoxemia—too little oxygen in your blood to meet your body's needs.

In its early stages, symptoms of hypoxemia include fatigue and shortness of breath. Physical activity, such as moving around the cabin to go to the lavatory or retrieving personal items from overhead compartments, compounds the problem. Without medical attention, the condition can quickly escalate, leading to life-threatening complications such as heart and lung failure.

Are You at Risk for Needing Supplemental Oxygen?

According to the American College of Chest Physicians, your chances of needing oxygen are higher if you have any of the following conditions:

  • Pulmonary fibrosis or interstitial lung disease
  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • Difficulty breathing with normal daily activity
  • A history of respiratory illness or infection
  • Pulmonary tuberculosis

Publication Review By: Peter B. Terry, M.D., M.A.

Published: 24 Jun 2013

Last Modified: 24 Jun 2013