lung shapes with an airplane in between them

Airplanes and Asthma

Hallways of Miami Airport, 2011. I was with my school group, catching a connecting flight that was departing in 7 minutes. We were barrelling down the terminal, our feisty Irish Chemistry teacher using her sternest classroom voice to clear a path for us. Well, everyone else was barrelling. I was lagging behind, lungs on fire, trying quite unsuccessfully to breathe, and unsuccessfully using those breaths to run. I fell behind from the rest of the class, with the Irish Chemistry teacher, who took my backpack off me and let me sit whilst I was flying with asthma and took puff after puff of my inhaler, which eventually helped.

Flying with asthma can be a wild ride

The Miami asthma attack whilst running for a plane is the most extreme example of airplanes clashing with my asthma. Even when I am not running through a terminal, there are plenty of hurdles to tackle. Sitting for hours in recirculated dry air at low pressure, being desiccated in my seat by the dry atmosphere, leaving inhalers in the carry on luggage that got checked at the gate, people spraying their new duty-free cologne two rows ahead of me and inducing a sneezing fit that lasts the rest of the flight: it’s no wonder that flying with asthma can be a wild ride.

Over the years I have developed a few coping strategies to improve my experience on airplanes, and this article covers a few of my favorite ways to make flights as comfortable as possible.

My tips for flying with asthma

Keep inhalers to hand (and bring spares)

Once you’re on the flight, you can’t get off. Make sure all inhalers are on your person if possible. I tend to stash inhalers in jacket pockets, or put them in the small bag I tuck under the seat in front.

Digging through an overhead locker mid-flight is no fun, especially when you need an inhaler as soon as possible. On particularly busy flights, I have also had my carry on bag checked at the gate: I had to unpack my bag to get to my inhalers to make sure they weren’t stowed in the hold.

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Try and bring spare medication, especially if you’re on an extended trip. Bags get lost and unexpected delays happen, and you don’t want to risk being without inhalers in an unfamiliar place.

Hydrate!

This tip took me a while to learn. I never drink enough water and didn’t realize the difference it could make to my asthma while flying.

Airplanes often feel very dry, which never helps my asthma, and makes me feel more dehydrated. Dehydration doesn’t help asthma, so staying on top of my water intake helps me keep my asthma under control.

I now take a reusable bottle with me on flights. I drink it before security and fill it up before I get on my flight. Airports are getting better at providing water fountains to refill bottles, so it is usually quite easy to do. Flight attendants will sometimes provide water in the air, especially on longer flights or when planes are delayed, but it gives me peace of mind to have my own supply too.

The unfortunate side effect of being well hydrated can be using the restroom on the plane frequently, so I now choose an aisle seat if available!

If you also have allergies, plan ahead

I have allergies that trigger my asthma, and like many others with asthma, can be sensitive to particles in the air. I tend to take an allergy tablet before boarding, which protects me from some of the triggers on the plane.

In addition to respiratory triggers, I have food allergies (one of which I discovered on a flight). I bring enough to eat so that I don’t have to rely on plane food, and scrutinize the ingredients of anything I receive.

As with my inhalers, I keep my allergy medication and epi-pen within arm’s reach at all times, just in case.

Put tissues in every pocket

A short and sweet tip. I put tissues in every pocket. Any clean napkins I receive, I stash. When I go to the restroom at the terminal, I take a few squares of toilet tissue with me, in case I get sneezy when someone sprays something weird in the cabin.

Be wary of time zone changes and medication schedules

My preventative inhaler is taken twice a day, in the morning and at night. But, on long flights, these timings can get fuzzy. I always make sure I am not missing a dose, or going too long between doses. If I know my sleep will get altered, I set alarms for my inhalers, not according to the time of day, but according to when I had my last puff. This keeps everything in check and running smoothly.

Leave plenty of time for connections

I have learned from Miami: when possible, I choose a longer connection so I am not running through the terminal last minute! This keeps my stress levels down and prevents my asthma from being triggered by sprinting with luggage.

Remember these tips before flying with asthma!

  • Airplanes and asthma don’t always mix easily, so take some steps to make the journey as easy as possible
  • Keep your medications, including inhalers, as close as possible, within arm’s reach at all times
  • Stay hydrated to combat dry cabin air
  • Know your triggers and keep on top of them, e.g. plan ahead for allergies, bring your own food
  • Pack plenty of tissues
  • Stay on top of your medication schedule, especially when changing time zones
  • Leave plenty of time for stress-free connections

What are your top tips for flying with asthma? Share them in the comments below!

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