You probably already know that, if you travel by airplane, you’ll experience some decrease in air pressure and lower than normal oxygen levels, but do you know by how much? The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that the cabin pressure on commercial airplanes be maintained at levels equivalent to the atmospheric pressure below 8,000 feet above sea level. However, in some circumstances, such as when the pilot must take the airplane to higher than normal altitudes in order to avoid bad weather, air pressure could drop to a level equivalent to the atmospheric pressure at 10,000 feet. This could put you at risk if you have COPD, because as air pressure drops, so does the pressure of oxygen in the air. At 10,000 feet it is roughly 1/3 less than the normal pressure of oxygen.
For those without COPD, the decreased oxygen tension levels generally are not noticeable. But for up to 80 percent of COPD sufferers, the effect can be serious enough to cause low oxygen levels even at rest or with modest exertion, such as walking to the lavatory.
For this reason, you may need oxygen supplementation in-flight even if you don’t use oxygen in your day-to-day life. Consult with your doctor well ahead of your travel dates. He or she may want to measure your blood oxygen level using a finger oximeter or by obtaining an arterial blood sample. You may also have your lung function tested under conditions simulating flight such as by having you breathe a gas mixture with lower than normal levels of oxygen, or tested in a special chamber where air pressure is lowered to levels typically experienced during commercial flights. Based on the results of these or similar tests, it might be recommended that you have supplemental oxygen for your flights.
You may find more information on how to determine if you will need supplemental oxygen when flying, in an informative article on Up To Date, an online evidence-based, physician-authored clinical decision support resource.
See our post next week on “What to Know When Traveling With Portable Oxygen.”