Traveling with Heart Disease: Tips for a Safe Trip

By Kathleen M. Heintz, DO

With the holiday travel season upon us, many people will be traveling to visit friends and family. Travel can be stressful, but if you are one of the millions of Americans who has heart disease or a heart condition, preparation may be the key.

Whether you have had a recent surgery, a coronary stent, pacemaker or another implantable device, you must plan ahead. While there is no guarantee that nothing will go wrong while you are traveling, a few precautionary measures you can reduce the chances of an emergency while traveling.

If you have a heart condition, consult with your cardiologist before you make long-distance plans. Let your doctor know where you will be going, how you will be traveling and how long you will be away. Make sure that you are cleared to travel, particularly if you have had recent had heart surgery or a device placed. Open-heart surgery may require you to wait up to six weeks until you can travel, particularly if you are driving. If you have a known history of congestive heart failure (CHF), you want to make sure your condition is optimized prior to a change in altitude.

You also may want to research medical facilities near your destination. Make sure there is a hospital in the area that is able to handle your complex medical condition. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) now requires that automated external defibrillators (AEDs) are mandatory on all passenger planes over 7,500 pounds.

A rare but dangerous complication of prolonged air travel is deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is a blood clot that can form primarily in the legs or pelvis. This blood clot can potentially travel to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism, a sometimes fatal condition. Flights lasting more than eight hours increase the risk that this may occur. To avoid a deep vein thrombosis, try to get up and walk around the plane every one to two hours to keep your blood circulating.

If you do have had an implanted device, there is little evidence that air travel will interfere with it. You may want to notify the airline prior to your security check and have an individual, handheld screening process.

To assure that you are prepared prior to travel:

  • Make sure you have a supply of medications you are taking, with the names of all of your prescriptions written down, in a carry-on bag.
  • Carry a copy of your medical screenings (e.g., EKGs) if you have an irregular heartbeat or a pacemaker
  • Book an aisle seat so you can more easily walk around
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages, which can cause dehydration especially if you already take a diuretic or water pill
  • Leave a copy of all travel , health, prescription and device information with a contact at home

Travel for individuals with cardiac conditions is safe. Taking a few pre-trip precautions and organizing your information can assure that you are prepared. So, make those plans, visit family and friends, and enjoy the upcoming holiday season!

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