Flying when your patient has COPD

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD for short) is one of the world’s most common medical conditions. Estimates suggest there may be as many as 250 million+ sufferers globally.

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If you’ve ever encountered COPD, you may know it presents certain problems when it comes to flying. For anyone who needs to repatriate a patient – a colleague, a loved one, or even themselves – that can be a big concern. Here’s what you need to know.

What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is the name for a group of conditions which cause the lungs to become damaged, obstructed or inflamed. Some of the most common types include chronic bronchitis and emphysema. COPD typically affects people in middle age or older, though it can be seen in younger people too.

What symptoms does it cause?

They can be quite mild at first, ranging from shortness of breath to tiring more easily. For this reason, people often aren’t aware they have the condition in the earliest stages. As it progresses, however, COPD can cause more serious complications. These include:

  • Breathlessness (particularly during physical activity)
  • Difficulty taking deep breaths
  • Wheezing or a persistent, phlegmy cough
  • Frequent chest infections

Why is flying problematic for COPD patients?

Flying has a number of physical implications for our bodies. Air pressure and density decrease with altitude, which means the body takes in less oxygen as the plane climbs higher. Pressure changes can also cause gases in our bodies to expand. The end result is that the volume of available oxygen to our blood decreases. For people in good health, that’s rarely a problem. But it can be a major issue for people with COPD. Some of the potential risks include hypoxemia (lower-than-normal O2 in the arteries), pressure on the pulmonary arteries, and hyperventilation (rapid breathing).

Does that mean we can’t fly?

No – though it’s highly advisable, and indeed may only be possible, to fly with a doctor or paramedic in support, carrying the appropriate medical equipment. The way you fly, however, will very much depend on your condition and needs:

  • Medical Escort – if your patient has mild to moderate COPD and is in a stable condition, it’s usually possible to fly them out on a regular commercial airline. One of EMS’s specialist doctors or paramedics will travel alongside them to provide constant medical support through the airport connections and during the flight. We normally fly business class so we can create space for you to lie down if necessary – though many COPD patients prefer to sit upright to make their breathing more comfortable
  • Private Jet – for more serious COPD, it may be necessary to take an air ambulance by private jet. This means we can tailor the conditions and treatment to your patient’s needs. We can bring all the necessary medical equipment with us, take a team of medics and specialists, and create plenty of space in the cabin for a stretcher and treatment areas. If your patient needs intensive-care support during the flight, we can do this on a specially-equipped ICU air ambulance
  • “Sea-level” flight – in certain circumstances, we can organise a low-altitude flight to bring your patient home at conditions that are very close to normal ground level

Can EMS supply oxygen canisters?

Absolutely. If your patient has COPD, they will very likely need to travel with a Portable Oxygen Concentrator (POC) (we can also supply other advanced oxygen systems if necessary). The volume and flow rate needed for the flight varies from patient to patient, so we will discuss this with you in detail beforehand. We can bring our own supply of portable oxygen, but we can also arrange for your patient to bring their own if they prefer. Commercial airlines often need to know the type and brand of POC you’re planning to bring. That’s something we can help you with too. We’ll also need to make sure there’s enough battery power for your machine during the flight, plus extra capacity (typically 50%) in case of any delays. Again, we can help you work this out before we fly.

How else can EMS help us?

EMS Air Ambulance & Medical Repatriation is a “bed-to-bed” repatriation company, which means we take on literally everything you need from first collection to final handover. For COPD repatriations, that includes things like:

  • A wheelchair – your patient will probably want to use a wheelchair for airport connections, to conserve energy, avoid breathlessness and stay comfortable during the travel. We’ll bring one with us but, with a few exceptions, we can also arrange to bring your patient’s own wheelchair too
  • Medical permits – most commercial airlines will require a doctor’s declaration that your COPD patient is fit to travel on an international flight. We can arrange that for you before we leave
  • Medical equipment – if an emergency situation does happen during the transport, we can make sure we have all the necessary equipment ready to deal with it. That includes things like intubation and medicines

Wherever your patient is in the world, and however serious their condition, there’s almost always something we can do to help them get to the treatment they need.

Contact us

Need help or advice about a relative, friend or colleague’s situation right now? Please get in touch with our team and they’ll be really glad to talk and explain what we can do. You can find all the details on our website Contact page, including international phone numbers, the EMS WhatsApp channel, and our email address. Whatever you need, we’re here to help.

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