Now that the weather is getting warmer and the days are getting longer, many people are gearing up to head out of town.
However, for many people, the arrival of summer doesn’t mean they can just pack up and head out to wherever the wind blows. For people with heart disease, planning a vacation means not only choosing the right destination but also the right form of transportation. In some cases, simply traveling by air can lead to serious complications that could be life-threatening.
While you might be tempted to simply stay home, living with heart disease doesn’t mean you have to stick close to home and miss the joys of travel. It does mean, though, that you might have to do a little more research about your condition and how to manage it on the go.
Traveling Up in the Air With Heart Disease
According to experts, the likelihood of having a cardiac episode while in the air is quite small: Of the millions of air passengers who take to the sky every year, only a small handful (as in fewer than 100) actually has a significant cardiac episode while in flight.
However, doctors note, there is always a risk that cardiac patients can run into trouble, for several reasons. First, the changes in altitude and pressure that come with flying can affect circulation and the rhythm of the heart, especially in patients with angina or irregular heartbeats. Sitting for long periods can also affect circulation, and even lead to blood clots that can be life threatening even in healthy individuals. You can’t overlook the stress of flying, either. Approximately one-third of all adults admit to feeling nervous before a flight, and often the simple act of managing the airport, navigating through security and getting on the plane itself can increase stress levels.
For all of these reasons, doctors recommend that some patients avoid flying altogether. If you have had a heart attack, stent placement or bypass surgery within the previous three weeks, for example, you should not fly. Other patients who are cautioned against flying are those who have unstable angina, poorly controlled heart failure or uncontrolled arrhythmia. Patients who have stable angina or can get their condition under control using medication, are generally clear to fly, as are those who have pacemakers and internal defibrillators.
Knowing Exactly What You’re in For
While it’s safe for most heart patients to fly, that doesn’t mean that every destination is appropriate. Traveling to high-altitude regions, for example, could cause trouble for patients suffering from angina. The lack of oxygen pressure in a mountainous area could exacerbate the symptoms of angina, which is already limiting the amount of oxygen reaching the heart. When you travel to an area of extremely high altitude from your home city at or near sea level, it can take a few days for the body to acclimate to the changes in oxygen, meaning that several days of your trip could be at the very least uncomfortable, and at the worst, dangerous.
Altitude isn’t the only potential problem for travelers with heart disease. Traveling often results in a significant increase in physical activity; even just strolling the streets of a quaint European village might be more activity than one is used to doing each day. If your body isn’t prepared for more activity, you could be placing more stress on your heart than necessary.
Again, this doesn’t mean you need to stay home. When choosing a destination, pay close attention to the altitude and climate, and adjust your itinerary to allow for the effect on your body. That might mean driving into the mountains instead of flying, to allow for a more gradual transition. As you plan your trip, know your limitations and be prepared for plenty of down time to avoid overexertion. Talk with your doctor about any activity limitations, and listen to your body.
Bringing the Essentials
Once you’ve been cleared to travel (which might involve a few tests) and have your destination in mind, it’s time to pack your bags — and as someone with heart disease, you may need to add a few extra items to your carry on.
First, it’s important to bring plenty of medication for your entire trip; carry it in the original pharmacy containers to avoid questions in security. Bring along a copy of your prescription as well, and ask your doctor about what to do should you run out of medication or lose it while you’re on the road.
Also, request a copy of your medical history, and carry it along with contact information for your health care team and health insurance coverage details. In the event of an emergency, if a treating physician has access to all of your records, he or she will be able to assess the situation and provide treatment more effectively. Finally, prepare for travel appropriately: Get plenty of rest, stay hydrated (avoid alcohol while flying) and consider wearing compression stockings to help maintain proper circulation while you’re in the air. You can also aid circulation by performing a few simple exercises, like those in this video.
Having heart disease requires adjusting your lifestyle, but it doesn’t mean that you have to stay home and give up the pleasures of travel. When you have the right information, your heart condition won’t slow you down.