What Happens During An In-Air Medical Emergency
Scary as it may seem, experiencing a serious health incident when you’re in-air is actually pretty uncommon. Medical emergencies occur in roughly 1 out of 600 commercial flights, according to findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
And there’s no evidence that the act of flying makes serious health problems like stroke or heart attack more likely, says Christian Martin-Gill, M.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, who consults with airlines from the ground in the event of a medical emergency.
Still, if something serious does happen, you’re in good hands—even if there’s no doctor actually on board.
“There’s some variability between airlines, but the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) requires flight attendants to be trained in using an external defibrillator and in basic first aid,” says Martin-Gill.
That means that they’d be able to provide immediate treatment for a heart attack or stroke. They can also handle things like minor injuries or lightheadedness caused by dehydration.
But if a flight attendant can’t solve a problem on his own—or if they see signs of a serious issue, like fainting or heavy bleeding—he can call in reinforcements.
Airlines coordinate with 24-hour medical call centres like the University of Pittsburgh’s STAT-MD Communications Center. When the flight crew calls in, they can connect with a consulting physician like Dr Martin-Gill to make a diagnosis and decide on a treatment plan.
“We discuss the situation with the pilot or attendant to figure out what’s going on with the patient,” he says. “Then we’ll come up with a list of recommendations.”
Treatment could be something simple—like having a lightheaded passenger drink some water.
It could also involve administering drugs from the plane’s on-board medical kit.
These kits include things like epinephrine or antihistamine for allergic reactions, anticonvulsants for seizures, nitroglycerin tablets for chest pain, or even meds to deal with postpartum bleeding if a woman gives birth during a flight.
When the situation is really serious—like in the case of a heart attack, stroke, cardiac arrest, or seizure—the flight crew and the consulting physician, along with dispatchers on the ground, decide if the plane should make an emergency landing.
When that happens, 911 is notified, so an ambulance is ready and waiting to take the sick person to the hospital when the plane touches down.
What If There Is A Doctor On Board?
In close to half of all flights, there’s a doctor, nurse, or paramedic on board to help as a volunteer, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Often, they’ll assess a sick passenger and weigh in with their recommendations. And they might administer treatment that needs to happen right away, like CPR.
But they’re not expected to call the shots—that goes to the consulting physician on call.
After all, a dermatologist or a pediatric nurse who just happen to be on the flight might not be as experienced dealing with something like a heart attack as the consulting emergency physician on the ground may be.
Why Most Health Problems On Airplanes Aren’t Serious
Most of the medical mishaps that strike in the friendly skies aren’t life-threatening.
It’s more likely that you’ll experience minor health issues due to the plane’s environment. You may get lightheaded, pass out, have trouble breathing, feel nauseous, or vomit.
That’s because even though cabins are pressurized, the air that high up in the clouds is still pretty thin.
“There’s less total oxygen up there,” says Dr Martin-Gill. Your body has to work harder to get as much oxygen as it needs.
Plus, practically everyone is prone to dehydration—due to a combination of the dry cabin air, and the fact people tend to drink less while traveling—and weird eating and sleep schedules while travelling, Dr Martin-Gill adds.
That can mean that even healthy people can sometimes feel sick when they fly.
How To Stay Safe During Your Flight
If you don’t normally have issues at high altitudes, you probably don’t need to worry.
Air travel does comes with a slightly higher risk for developing deep vein thrombosis, a serious condition where blood clots form in your legs.
But it’s not from being high in the air—it’s from sitting for many hours at a time, which can make it harder for blood to circulate in your legs.
If you’re young and healthy, it probably isn’t really a concern, Dr. Martin-Gill says. But you can takes steps to keep clots from forming—especially on longer flights—by occasionally getting up and walking around, recommends the CDC.
Also, it’s never a bad idea to make sure you’re well hydrated. “I’d recommend drinking a bottle of water before the flight,” says Dr Martin-Gill.
And if you have a preexisting medical condition, like a heart or lung condition that requires the use of supplemental oxygen, talk to your doctor.
He can help you figure out if you should notify the airline about any special needs, like oxygen therapy. If you let them know ahead of time, it’ll be easy for them to accommodate you once you’re on board, says Dr. Martin-Gill.