Traveling Safely with Heart Disease
Planning ahead can help keep your trip on track.
Over the next few months, millions of people will be traveling to destinations near and far—either getting away from the cold weather or visiting family.
“A common question I get from patients is whether it’s safe for them to travel with a heart condition,” says Eli Gelfand, MD, Section Chief of General Cardiology in the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “And in most cases the answer is an enthusiastic ‘yes.’”
Getting away can be good for your health, says Gelfand, a veteran traveler whose trips have taken him around the world.
The key to a safe journey, Gelfand notes, is to prepare in advance. “By carefully planning ahead and occasionally, making small modifications to travel plans, people with heart conditions can enjoy their trips without worrying about their health.”
Here are Gelfand’s recommendations to get ready for your trip.
Five Questions for Your Doctor:
Before you make any reservations, talk with your doctor about your travel plans, especially if you have undergone a recent heart procedure, use oxygen intermittently or chronically, or been prescribed a new medication.
- Check on your doctor’s office hours and phone number and write them down to take with you.
- Find out what number to call outside of regular office hours, but in an emergency, seek immediate treatment at a local hospital.
- Take note of any time difference between your home and vacation destination.
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all international travelers be up to date on measles and other routine vaccines, even if they’re headed for a quick trip to Europe.
- Doctors in BIDMC’s Travel Medicine & Immunization Clinic can review patients’ travel plans to determine which particular immunizations are needed, and can review patients’ medical histories for any possible side effects.
Questions to ask:
1. Is it safe for me to fly, including on long flights of eight hours or more?
2. Is it safe to visit high-altitude destinations?
3. How can I reach you if I have concerns while I’m away?
4. Am I up to date on my routine immunizations?
5. Are any special immunizations required for the country I’ll be visiting?
Four Medication Musts:
1. Put together a full list of all the medications you are currently taking — prescription and over-the-counter — and the specific doses. Take the list with you when you travel. Another option is to bring along copies of your original prescriptions.
2. Refill prescriptions before you leave and make sure you have enough medication to last your entire trip, as well as an extra few days’ worth in case you are delayed for any reason.
3. Pack medications in a place where you can easily reach them while you are traveling. If you are flying, pack medication in carry-on luggage.
4. Take time zone differences into account if you take your medications at a particular time of day or evening. You may want to keep a watch or clock on “home time” and continue to take your medication at the normal time. If you are traveling to a time zone more than two or three hours different from home, you can adjust your medications to the new time zone, making sure not to take more than prescribed during a 24-hour period.
Three Tips for Airplane Travel:
By and large, air travel is safe for patients with heart conditions. But patients with a history of congestive heart failure, congenital heart disease or lung disease should be aware that despite cabin pressurization, the air in the plane’s cabin is still much thinner than it is on the ground. This impacts how oxygen is carried through the blood, and means that your heart has to work harder. Talk with your doctor about this.
1. Move around.
Sitting for long periods of time can slightly increase the risk of blood clot formation in the veins of the legs, arms or pelvis. So get up and walk around every couple of hours.
2. Stay hydrated.
Drink plenty of water and steer clear of salty snacks, and avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages to prevent dehydration.
Low-sodium snack recipes: Make ahead to avoid salty snacks on the plane
3. Prepare for metal detectors.
Most people can travel safely with a pacemaker or another implantable cardiac device. Be aware that although full body scanners at the airport will not harm pacemakers or change the settings, they may set off metal detector alarms. Ask your doctor for a letter to have on hand when you go through airport security or show your medical device card to the Transportation Security Administration official. You may be asked to not go through the metal detector.
In an emergency, always seek immediate treatment at a local hospital before contacting your doctor.
Gelfand also advises patients traveling abroad to look up the emergency services number for your destination country prior to leaving home, and use a mobile app like mPassport which allows you to look up emergency numbers, local physicians and local safety alerts.
Above content provided by the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.