Is it Safe to Travel on an Airplane After a Stroke?

Many stroke survivors and families of stroke survivors worry about the safety of flying as a passenger in an airplane after a stroke. Is the concern warranted? It certainly is a common question, so common in fact, that a number of medical research studies have looked at this very question.

Couple checking for plane delay on departure panel
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Can Flying Cause a Stroke?

Data shows that urgent medical ailments of all forms are relatively uncommon on airline flights, and the incidence of a stroke during a commercial flight is especially low.

An Australian group of medical researchers defined strokes related to air travel as any stroke occurring within 14 days of travel. After tracking 131 million passengers at Melbourne airport between 2003 and 2014, the researchers reported that stroke-related to air travel occurs in less than one in a million passengers. They found that that half of the people who had a stroke on a flight had a heart condition that is known to lead stroke. These heart conditions are fairly common, so the findings of the very low stroke rate suggest that there may not be a substantially increased risk of stroke from flying.

Another group of researchers from Spain found that a stroke occurred at a rate of one per every 35,000 flights. They found that over 70% of those who had a stroke on an airplane had carotid artery stenosis, which is narrowing of a blood vessel in the neck, a condition that is a risk factor for stroke.

Flying After a TIA or a Stroke

As it turns out, a history of stroke does not pose danger to the brain during an airline flight, and therefore, a past stroke is not a contraindication to flying on an airplane as a passenger.

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a mini-stroke that resolves without permanent brain damage. A TIA is very similar to a stroke and it is a warning of stroke risk. Most of the health conditions discovered during a medical TIA evaluation do not limit air travel.

However, it is important to note that a few of the medical disorders that lead to a TIA may pose a very small risk on airplane flights. These disorders include patent foramen ovale, paradoxical embolism, or hypercoagulability. If you have been diagnosed with any of these health conditions, you should get the appropriate medical treatment.

When It May Be Unsafe to Fly

Hypercoagulability is a condition that increases the tendency of blood clot formation. Several blood-clotting syndromes cause hypercoagulability.

Most strokes are caused by an interruption of blood flow due to a blood clot in the brain. Flying for long distances has been associated with an increase in blood clotting in those who are susceptible. If you have a hypercoagulable condition, it is best to talk to your healthcare provider about airplane travel and whether you need to take any special precautions.

What if a Stroke or TIA Happens in-Flight?

While it is unusual for a stroke to arise during flight, it does occur. When airline attendants are alerted of a passenger’s medical distress, they respond promptly, as they are trained to do.

If you or a loved one experiences a stroke on an airplane, nearby passengers and trained professionals are likely to notice and call for emergency medical help fairly quickly. On rare occasions, passenger flights have been diverted for medical emergencies, and emergency personnel can transport a passenger to a medical facility for diagnosis and treatment.

A Word From Verywell

A stroke causes a wide range of neurological deficits. Some of the disabilities that result from a stroke, such as impaired speech, vision changes, and trouble walking, may impair your ability to get around and communicate with others in the air travel setting.

Stroke survivors may suffer from deficits in spatial perception, which can increase the risk of getting lost in an airport. Communication problems after a stroke can lead to a misunderstanding of detailed flight information. Weakness and coordination problems can make it difficult to walk long distances through an airport. Consequently, for practical reasons, many stroke survivors should travel either with a companion or with professional assistance.

If you are a stroke survivor, you can travel safely with a reasonable amount of planning.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Cleveland Clinic. Transient ischemic attack (TIA) or mini stroke.

  4. Messerli FH, Rimoldi SF, Scherrer U, Meier B. Economy class syndrome, patent foramen ovale and stroke. Am J Cardiol. 2017;120(3):e29. doi:10.1016/j.amjcard.2016.07.047

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By Heidi Moawad, MD
Heidi Moawad is a neurologist and expert in the field of brain health and neurological disorders. Dr. Moawad regularly writes and edits health and career content for medical books and publications.