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Lung Cancer

I have lung cancer and I want to fly

07/07/2009

Question:

I have lung cancer and would like to take a 12 hour flight to visit my parents. My Oxygen level is a little low is there any problem on the flight due to the altitude and pressure?

Answer:

At higher altitudes, the atmospheric pressure is low and the available oxygen is low as well. However, in most patients it is not a problem as our body adjusts and maintain the minimal requirement even though the body oxygen level drops. Commercial airlines maintain a cabin pressure that is almost equivalent to an altitude of 6000 to 7000ft (even though they are flying at 40,000ft). If you already have a low oxygen level at baseline you may need additional oxygen supply to maintain minimal oxygen requirement of the body and especially for the brain. If your blood oxygen level is too low, you may either feel dizzy or pass out. It is even critical with longer duration of the flight. Most hospitals can run a simulation test to determine if you will need oxygen (and if you do need, how much) during the flight. This is a very simple test. Without knowing the exact numbers, I recommend strongly that you contact a pulmonologist to discuss this issue and have a simulation test before you consider flying for 12 hours. If the test shows that you would need oxygen, the airlines will require a prescription from your physician to arrange it. You are usually not permitted to carry your own oxygen tank. With your history of lung cancer, you are at a slightly higher risk for developing a blood clot (that can even go to the lungs). Unless you are already on a blood thinner (anticoagulation), if you are planning to take a 12 hour long flight you should get a shot of blood thinner before you fly as well. Please let me know if this helps.

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Response by:

Shaheen  Islam, MD, MPH Shaheen Islam, MD, MPH
Clinical Associate Professor
Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care & Sleep
Hematology
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University