Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease affects quality of life in millions of people each year. The disease causes narrowing and blockage of airways as a result of damaged tissue in the lungs. Due to their reduced lung capacity, COPD sufferers often experience chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and reactive asthma-like symptoms that can be life threatening. Despite these difficulties, however, people with COPD can still travel, even by air, if a few simple precautions are observed.
Commercial airplanes typically travel at an altitude of about 35,000 feet above sea level and operate with cabins pressurized to between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. Even with this pressurization, the oxygen levels in an airplane are about 25% below what they would be at sea level. For a healthy adult, this reduction in oxygen is not a problem, but for those with reduced lung capacity already, the situation can be quite serious. Even if a COPD patient does not ordinarily need supplemental oxygen for daily activities, he or she may need to use it during flight.
If you have COPD or other chronic respiratory problems, check with your doctor and your airline to find out if you will need supplemental oxygen and what steps you must follow to arrange for its availability during your trip. Your doctor will perform an oxygen saturation test to determine how much oxygen is traveling in your blood at different levels of exertion. If you have COPD and your saturation level drops to 89 percent or less while at rest or upon light exertion, then you should use supplemental oxygen on a plane.
Contact your airline well in advance of your flight to find out if supplemental oxygen is allowed on board. Due to security issues, airlines do not allow passengers to bring their own oxygen tanks on board, though they frequently may be checked as luggage. You must use oxygen supplied by the airline, and you may be subject to additional charges for this service. You will also need certification from your doctor that the oxygen is necessary. Check with your airline to determine what type of certification is required and how far in advance it must be provided.
Don’t let COPD prevent you from seeing the sights! Staying in touch with your doctor and taking a few necessary steps in advance of your trip can make air travel both possible and enjoyable.
Adapted from Coping With Allergies and Asthma and material supplied by National Jewish Medical and Research Center.