Challenges of Using Oxygen for Air Travel
I plan to fly to Tampa, Florida, to visit my daughter and her family for Christmas. My doctor told me that I have severe COPD based on breathing tests. I use a portable oxygen concentrator during activities at a setting of 2, but my doctor has said that I do not need to use oxygen when inactive or with sleep. Do you have any suggestions for flying? Do I need oxygen for air travel?
Daniel from Nashville, TN
Planning ahead for air travel when you have COPD is important. Have you traveled by air in the recent past? If so, did you have any breathing problems?
If possible, take a direct flight rather have to stop at another airport. Make
sure that you have a full supply of your COPD medications, and take your albuterol inhaler with you on the plane so it is available if you need to use it. Carry your COPD medications with you on the plane; you do not want your medications in a checked bag in case it is misplaced or lost.
Commercial airlines fly at altitudes of 30,000 to 40,000 feet, and the oxygen concentration is close to 15% rather than the normal 21% in the air that we breathe at sea level. You should ask your doctor whether you will need to use oxygen for air travel. Your health care provider may order a test in which you breathe 15% oxygen for 20 minutes in order to determine if your oxygen level falls below a certain value. This is called a “hypoxic challenge test.” You may need to go to a medical center to have this test done as most community hospitals are not set up to do such testing.
In general, if your oxygen saturation (measured with an instrument on your finger) is below 85% during the test, then using oxygen during the flight is recommended. If so, then you will need to notify the airline that your doctor has recommended that you use oxygen during the flight. The airline has a form that your doctor will need to complete. Then, you should submit the completed form to the airline medical department for review.
In April 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a statement that a portable oxygen concentrator (abbreviated POC) can be used as a source of oxygen for air travel. Make sure that the airline knows that you are bringing your POC on the plane. The airline may allow you to use your own concentrator during the flight, or may provide their own oxygen system for you to use.
Hopefully, your travels will be smooth and uneventful. Enjoy the time with your family.
Donald A. Mahler, M.D.