Up, Up and Away: Air Travel and Asthma

I travel often. When I was experiencing a lot of severe exacerbations I had a lot of discomfort while traveling. I have been fortunate that I have been riding a wave of good health, flying larger planes, and I have not had these symptoms for quite some time.

On a recent flight, I started to have some discomfort and wondered what was up with the return of symptoms. Of course, my lungs are always just a little bit funky. However, this had me thinking about the effects, which I believe were due to air cabin pressure changes. I set out on a mission to investigate this further.

Impacts on our asthma while flying

First of all, let me clarify that flying commercial airlines is very safe and mostly comfortable. There are many regulatory boards and associations that ensure this.

In my research, I discovered that many things can add to the stress on our bodies during travel.1 These can include lowered barometric and oxygen pressure, noise, and vibration, erratic temperature, low humidity, jet lag and cramped seating to just name a few.

What about barometric and oxygen pressure can affect asthma? I learned that a decrease in the barometric pressure can decrease oxygen pressure. Hemoglobin, the chemical in our blood that carries oxygen throughout the body, remains about 90% saturated with oxygen even at the cruising cabin altitude. (At sea level it is about 97% saturated.)

Although most passengers can normally compensate for this small decreases in saturation, this is not always the case in people with asthma and certain other heart and lung diseases.1 Bingo! I am still researching some of the chemical exchanges related to respiration and what the physiological effects are and I promise to get back to you soon on that one

Making flying more comfortable

What can we do to make flying easier and a better experience with our asthma? It is best to be prepared and preventative medicine is always the best. If you can reschedule any travel in times when your asthma is uncontrolled or you are feeling unwell. It is better not to expose yourself to any more risks.

I have a story about traveling days after a bronchoscopy. While the doctor did say it was safe, I had some residual effects and I was mostly unwell on that trip. It was not the most pleasant experience that I had. I had a rough flight, lots of cabin pressure changes, turbulence and - oh yay - a sort of emergency landing. It just added to my somewhat dismal breathing at the time. It certainly would have been better to have postponed that particular trip.

Be prepared

Ensure that you have your asthma action plan with you and all medication used for treatment in your CARRY ON. I know that I usually have medication in my carry-on and in my checked bag and sometimes random inhalers pop out of pocket and backpacks. It is best to have these handy and available in a pocket or underneath the seat in front of you. If your flight is experiencing a lot of turbulence, you will not be able to access the overhead cabin to reach any items.

If you are traveling with someone else, give them a heads up about your asthma, that you are prepared to treat if need be and give them a run down in case they need to assist you.

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