Ahh…vacation! Whether soaking in the warmth of the Florida Keys or swishing down a European slope, traveling is a chance to break from a daily routine to relax, rejuvenate or try something new. But before you book a flight for your next getaway, it’s important to think about the state of your heart. The good news: most people with heart disease and other cardiac conditions can travel safely. Here are some questions to ask yourself before you go. A few simple steps can help safeguard your heart health while traveling. Most importantly, check with your doctor at least four to six weeks before your trip.
Am I Healthy Enough to Travel by Plane to My Destination?
Air travel can be a problem for those who have a heart condition. In an airplane, there is less oxygen available. Plus, the decrease in cabin pressure can cause a slight increase in heart rate. Both can put additional strain on the heart. In general, if you have stable cardiac disease (no change in your heart condition for 60 days), are symptom-free and are able to climb a flight of stairs, you are likely considered fit enough for flying.
Your doctor can advise you regarding your plans and whether you are healthy enough to be in an airplane. Air travel is usually not recommended for people who have or had:
- Uncomplicated Heart Attack within the past two to three weeks
- Complicated Heart Attack within the past six weeks
- Unstable Angina
- Advanced Heart Failure
- High Blood Pressure that is not well controlled
- Angioplasty or Intracoronary Stent Placement within the previous two weeks
- Open Heart Surgery in the previous three weeks
- Cerebral Vascular Accident (a stroke) within two weeks
As a precaution, all aircraft are outfitted with an automated external defibrillator and at least one staff person who is trained in its use.
Do I Know How to Prevent Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT)?
Another risk to heart patients during travel is deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a condition that can develop during long flights, train or car rides, or during any period of immobility. DVT is a blood clot that forms in a vein deep in the body. Most deep vein blood clots occur in the lower leg or thigh. If the blood clot breaks off and travels through the bloodstream to an artery in the lungs and blocks blood flow it is called a pulmonary embolism (PE). A PE can damage the lungs and other organs in the body and cause death.
You are at a higher risk for developing DVT if you have had a blood clot before, have recently had surgery or lower limb/abdominal trauma, have congestive heart failure, are taking oral contraceptives or estrogen replacement therapy, or are severely overweight (morbidly obese), especially if there is swelling in the legs, hips, ankles and/or feet.
To avoid DVT, take a short walk every hour or two while you’re traveling, either down the aisle of the plane or train and back, or in a safe area off the highway. Drinking water and wearing compression stockings can also reduce your risk.
Can I Handle the Exertion?
Traveling from your house to the departure gate at the airport alone can involve a lot of walking. General anxiety and the stress of travel, poor quality sleep on the plane and change of time zones all add up to increased stress on your cardiovascular system. Allow plenty of time to pace yourself. Consider using transport services to drop you off at the departure gate, porters to lift and deliver your suitcases and wheelchairs and motorized carts to help conserve your energy and decrease the total workload on your heart.
Ask yourself if you can physically handle your trip agenda. Some vacations are much more active than your daily routine and you will need to make sure you are in shape for the trip you are planning. Pack the right footwear, plan adequate rest periods and drink lots of water. Once you reach your destination, plan your activities so you can rest in between.
Can I Bring All of My Medications and Medical Information?
Whenever you are away from home, it is important to carry a list of your medication with you. When traveling, be sure to bring all of your medication and a list of your medical history with you. Make a photocopy or two and put it in a separate bag.
- Pack your medications in their original containers in your carry-on luggage. Bring more than you think you will need in case your trip is delayed.
- Carry a complete list of your medications, the dosage and how often you take them. Note any allergies.
- Carry your physician contact information, a short summary of your medical history and a recent copy of your EKG and pacemaker device. Pack a first aid kit if you are traveling to foreign countries or remote areas. Include over-the-counter medications that you are familiar with and that you know are compatible with your prescribed medications for common illnesses (diarrhea, constipation, colds, etc.).
Can I Handle the Elements?
It can be nearly impossible to control the heat and humidity in airplanes, trains and taxis. (High heat and humidity add stress to the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems.) Once you reach your destination, it may take several days for your body to get used to new weather conditions.
If you are used to controlling heat with air conditioning and your vacation excursions are outside, you will need to pace yourself, hydrate, use sunscreen, wear a hat and dress in lightweight clothing.
Consult with your physician if you are planning a trip to a location where altitudes are above 8,000 feet. High altitudes force the heart to work harder. Heart medications can also be affected by altitude. People with or without heart disease can experience Acute Mountain Sickness, which is a headache and any one of the following symptoms: loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, fatigue or weakness, dizziness, lightheadedness and difficulty sleeping. Higher altitudes can dry out your hair, skin and eyes and cause nosebleeds. Plan your physical activities (hiking, biking and skiing) to begin a few days after arrival and gradually increase your activity until you have adjusted. Drinking lots of fluids, avoiding alcohol and being in an air-conditioned environment will help as well.
Will My Medical Insurance Cover Me Away from Home?
Make sure to call your medical insurance provider before your trip to find out exactly what will and will not be covered if you require medical care while traveling. Medical evacuation is very expensive and you might want to consider purchasing a policy to cover you when you travel.
Getting the green light from your doctor and following these guidelines will help you feel prepared while you are away from home—so you can relax and enjoy your vacation. Safe travels!