Air Travel Tips for Thyroid Patients

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Every day, millions of Americans, including many thyroid patients, travel via air. If you are headed into the friendly skies, you may be aware of some of the health risks involved in flying, which include the basic discomfort of dry eyes or motion sickness, as well as the more serious incidence of blood clots after long flights.

But as a thyroid patient, you should know that you face a variety of additional challenges. Dry eyes, constant sinus infections, erratic immune systems, and the daily need for medications can make air travel even more uncomfortable, or pose added health risks.

The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) has put together a variety of tips and recommendations for traveling with medications, what to eat and drink on the plane, and suggestions on ways to deal with the effects of air cabin pressure, so that flying does have to be hard on your health.

Talk to Your Doctor If You Have Heart, Lung or Breathing Problems

Due to the effects of air cabin pressure (equivalent to being 5,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level), the body's oxygen saturation percentage drops six to eight points in a pressurized airplane cabin. Less cabin pressure results in less oxygen. This can be a problem for those who suffer from heart and/or lung disorders. Talk to your physician before your trip if you have a history of heart or lung disease or cancer.

Be Careful About Flying With Cold, Sinus, Nose or Ear Infection 

If you have a cold or an infection – particularly ear, nose, and/or sinus infections – you should consider cancelling your flight. Congestion can lead to pain, bleeding, and possibly a ruptured ear drum or sinus damage. Obtain a note from your physician as many airlines will not charge you for your flight if you provide a physician's note during the cancellation process. If you must fly while ill, contact your physician to ask about what precautions you should take. Some doctors may suggest you take a decongestant, or have other recommendations before or during a flight. 

Be Aware of Low Humidity

The humidity in the cabin is usually below 20 percent. Low humidity can cause dry eyes and skin and result in dehydration. If you wear contact lenses, consider wearing glasses during the flight, or using commercially available lubricating eye drops, as reduced cabin humidity can cause eye irritation. Have a small bottle of lotion on hand for dry skin. 

Discuss Medication Timing

People with thyroid disease and diabetes often have a fairly strict schedule for taking medications. If you are going to be crossing multiple time zones, discuss in advance with your doctor how best to time your medications. 

Other Recommendations

  • If you've had surgery, including eye or oral/dental, within the last month, check with your physician prior to flying
  • If you have had radioactive iodine (RAI) treatment, travel with a card or letter in case you set off any radiation detectors during security checks
  • If you are pregnant, check with your physician before flying.
  • It is dangerous to fly immediately after scuba diving. If you have been scuba diving, wait 12-24 hours (depending on the depths and number of dives performed) before flying.

When in doubt, always consult your physician prior to flying.

Your Medications While Traveling

  • Place ALL medication(s) – both prescription and over-the-counter – and any medical supplies (insulin syringes) in your carry-on bag. Not only will they be less likely to be lost, but they will not be exposed to temperature changes that occur in the cargo/storage area.
  • Bring a copy of the prescription and your physician's contact information with you in case the medication is lost or stolen. Also, know the generic names of all your medications as brand names can vary, especially abroad.
  • Carry medications in the original bottles to help avoid security issues.
  • Take along extra medication(s) in case your return trip is delayed.

What to Wear on the Flight

  • Avoid tight shoes, since feet may swell during flight. Choose shoes that you can easily take off or consider wearing sandals.
  • Wear light, comfortable clothing.
  • Bring a sweater or coat to cover up.

Personal Habits

  • Drink fluids before and during your flight to avoid dehydration.
  • Limit your alcohol intake at least 24 hours before flying, particularly if you suffer from motion sickness.

During Flight

  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can contribute to dehydration. Drink plenty of fluids – try to drink 8 ounces per hour – water and fruit juices are best.
  • Request only bottled water or canned beverages – especially if you have a suppressed immune system – as various studies have found bacteria in the water -- including the ice, and hot beverages like coffee and tea -- on both domestic and international aircraft.
  • Eat lightly.
  • Do not use an airline provided-blanket or pillow unless it is in a sealed package. An unsealed blanket may have germs from previous passengers.
  • Bring an antiseptic wipe, and wipe off your tray table, and arm rests. Studies show they are a common source of germs.
  • Flex and rotate your neck, back, shoulders, and ankles every 20-30 minutes to avoid stiffness. If sitting for more than 30 minutes, get up slowly as blood may have pooled, which can cause dizziness when suddenly standing.
  • Take a walk around the cabin every hour or two if flight safety permits.
  • If you are pregnant, request an aisle seat and walk about the plane when this is permitted during flight. Place the seatbelt low on your pelvis to avoid fetal injury.
  • If the person next to you is coughing, request to be moved if possible.
View Article Sources
  • American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine