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Air travel can rob the body of oxygen

HeartMay 04, 05

If flying makes you breathless, there may be good reason. New research suggests that air travel can diminish the blood’s oxygen supply to levels that, on the ground, might require treatment.

The study of 84 airline passengers found that when flights were at maximum altitude, more than half of the passengers had “oxygen saturation” levels at or below 94 percent. This means that less than 95 percent of their red blood cells were fully loaded with oxygen, a level at which many doctors would give a person supplemental oxygen, according to the study authors.

All of the passengers, whether on short or long flights, showed declines in their blood oxygen levels, with the average oxygen saturation descending from 97 percent on the ground to 93 percent at cruising altitude, the authors report in the journal Anaesthesia.

The main concern with such oxygen dips is how they could affect passengers with heart or lung disease, said study co-author Dr. Rachel Deyermond of Ulster Hospital in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

For someone with lung disease, a loss of a few percentage points in oxygen saturation could trigger shortness of breath, Deyermond told Reuters Health. A person with heart disease, she said, may suffer chest pain, or have an increased risk of a Heart attack or irregular heart rhythm.

It’s also possible that significant drops in oxygen levels could contribute to deep vein thrombosis (DVT)—blood clots in the legs that some passengers develop during long-haul flights.

Besides the effects it can have on the chronically ill, oxygen deprivation can create some less serious problems during and after a flight, including physical and mental fatigue, headache and digestive problems.

According to Deyermond, in-flight symptoms such as breathlessness, chest pain or confusion may signal that a person has dropping oxygen levels. In such cases, passengers with heart or lung disease can ask the crew for oxygen, she said. Healthy people may need only to drink some water, as dehydration compounds the effects of oxygen loss.

Avoiding alcohol and sleeping pills, Deyermond added, may also help.

She suggested that before taking a flight, people with heart or lung disease have their doctors measure their oxygen saturation. If it is already low, she explained, then patients will know it could drop to problematic levels, and they could tell the airline they will need oxygen during the flight.

SOURCE: Anaesthesia, May 2005.

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