While many travelers with medical conditions can safely travel by air, provided they’ve taken the necessary precautions, transportation providers like the airlines have the right to refuse to take passengers with conditions that may worsen, have serious consequences, or cause significant problems for the staff on board during the flight.
According to the CDC, the most commonly encountered in-flight medical events are the following:
- Neurologic events
- Cardiac events
- Respiratory events
- Gastrointestinal events
- Vasovagal syncope (fainting)
For safe travel with a medical condition, you may be asked for clearance from your doctor and/or denied boarding if the condition:
- may be considered potentially hazard to the safety of the aircraft
- requires special medical attention or equipment during the flight
- may be aggravated by the act of flying
- may affect the welfare and safety of others on board the plane
The first rule for travelers with underlying health problems such as cancer, heart disease, lung conditions, anemia, and diabetes or those on any regular form of medication or treatment or recently had surgery is to consult with their doctor before deciding to travel by air.
1. Carry your medication with you and plan to run out
If erupting volcanoes and super storms have taught us anything, it’s that travel can be unpredictable. Planning to run out of medication means you won’t cut it close. You’ll have the extra you need in case your trip is extended for some reason.
Most travel experts recommend that travelers carry their medication with them in their carry-ons and in their original prescription containers. This way, if you’re separated from your luggage, your health won’t be at risk.
2. Wear your medical alert identification (plus alternatives!)
If you have a medical condition, a medical alert bracelet is critical but some medical conditions don’t require patients to carry an something that identifies their condition. This works just fine if you’re traveling with another person and that person is in a condition to speak for you, i.e., they are conscious after the bus accident if you’re not.
Your first line of defense if you can’t speak for yourself is to let your medical team know you have a medical condition through some kind of identification. For some medical conditions, it’s a medical alert tag or bracelet, for others it’s a certificate or card. Keep these items on and/or available.
3. Carry your basic medical information on you
Whether or not you wear a medical alert identifier of some sort, it’s most useful to have your basic medical information, including the following:
- Your primary care physician contact information
- Your health insurance information
- Your travel insurance information
- Names and dosages of medications
- List of allergies and current illnesses
In most cases, this information can be printed onto a small card. Carry a couple of these so you have spares and tuck one into your wallet or money belt. Again, if you can’t speak for yourself, this information will tell emergency medical personnel a lot of what they need to know.
See our post on preparing for a personal medical emergency with a travel medical portfolio for more information.
4. Have travel medical with pre-existing condition coverage
Not everyone with a medical condition needs pre-existing condition coverage with their travel medical insurance plan, and the only way to know for certain is by understanding how travel insurance companies define a pre-existing condition.
Pre-existing conditions are defined as any injury, illness, or other medical condition for which you had symptoms, sought medical treatment, or changed your medications. For those traveling with Type 1 diabetes, for example, this means they always have a pre-existing condition because their rate of medication (insulin) is always changing. For those with a heart condition who have taken the same rate of medication for at least 60-180 days prior to the purchase of their travel insurance, they may not need the coverage. It all depends on that look-back period.
See our review of pre-existing condition coverage for a full understanding.
5. Carry a doctor’s letter if you have an implanted device
Most travelers with implanted medical devices know that it helps to carry some type of identification or a doctor’s note. After all, security checks for travelers who are fitted with artificial joints, pacemakers, and other internal devices can be problematic. Cardiac devices can be affected by the magnets used by security, so it’s important to understand from your doctor how best to go through airport security.
If you have an implanted device, be sure to show airport security the documentation you have right up front and keep yourself – and your medical devices – safe as you pass through the security lines.
See our top reasons to visit your doctor before you travel for more information.
6. If you’re traveling with oxygen or oxygen concentrators
The airlines are quite strict about those traveling with oxygen, and for good reason – mishandle oxygen tanks have blown planes out of the sky! You’ll need to research the rules and regulations for the airline on which you’re flying and be sure to think carefully about any bus, train, and other transportation services you’ll be using.
One of the most important things to arrange for before you leave is to have adequate oxygen therapy where you’ll be traveling because you’ll likely need to have refills of your portable tanks.
7. Know how to get medical care where you’re going
Once you’ve prepared for your trip, your next responsibility is to know how to get medical care where you’re going. If you’re traveling domestically, this is a lot easier than if you’re traveling abroad – especially if you’re going to a place where you’re unfamiliar with the local language.
There are two highly recommended – and highly reliable – sources of information travelers with medical conditions have for where to get qualified medical help. Those are:
- Contacting your travel insurance company’s assistance services representatives – they’ll be able to help you find local medical care and even help with translation services, or
- Becoming a member of IAMAT, or International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers
Ideally, having both sources on hand is best because in a medical emergency, having multiple sources to contact means someone will have the right answer for you.
See our info on finding medical care on the road and in a hurry for more details.
8. Have a backup plan
Hey, stuff happens and when you’re traveling with a medical condition, it’s important to have a backup plan in place – just in case:
- You drop your medication overboard while on a cruise – having copies of your prescriptions, a travel assistance services line to call, and your physician’s number on hand will make replacing them easier.
- You’re in a car accident and unconscious in a foreign country – your medical alert bracelet and wearing your basic medical info will help those emergency responders know what to do.
We’ve only discussed a few of the more common medical ailments that affect travelers, but there are others such as a predisposition for blood clots, pregnancy, and more. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of each traveler to know their health conditions and be aware of the safest ways to travel with those health conditions. After all, a medical condition doesn’t mean you’re permanently grounded, it just means you have to put a little more planning into how you travel.