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It's OK to Take a Long Plane Trip After a Heart Attack

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Aug. 11, 2000 -- Having a heart attack is bad enough, but having it while you're on vacation in a foreign country adds an extra level of anxiety. Dealing with foreign languages, doctors, facilities, and insurance systems is enough to make you want to get on the next flight for home.

But how long must you wait to take that long, often stressful plane ride? There have been few guidelines for patients on the issue, and those that do exist are all over the map; some allowed air travel two weeks after a heart attack, while others required an eight-week rest first. Now, a team of Israeli researchers has determined that most patients who have had heart attacks or other acute heart problems can safely get on a plane within two to three weeks, as long as other chronic problems have been ruled out.

"If patients ... are evaluated [properly] and found not to be at high risk, then the risk involved in a commercial flight soon after the event is small and acceptable," Doron Zahger, MD, attending cardiologist in the coronary care unit at Hadassah University Hospital, Mount Scopus, in Jerusalem, tells WebMD.

In a study published in the American Heart Journal, Zahger and colleagues looked at 21 tourists, with an average age of 70, who were brought into the hospital because of acute coronary problems. Seventeen of the patients had suffered heart attacks, while the remaining four had unstable angina, a condition that brings acute chest pain and a feeling of choking.

All patients were given standard medical treatments such as aspirin, the anticoagulant heparin, and other drugs to prevent attacks from recurring. Some also had stress tests done. The patients stayed in the hospital for about 10 days.

The patients were told that flying two to three weeks after suffering the heart attack or angina was reasonably safe. A medical escort was recommended, particularly if the flight took place within 14 days. For patients going to North America, an overnight stop in Europe was recommended

Researchers checked on the patients at an average of three weeks after they returned home. All the flights were uneventful, and all but two patients were alive and free of heart symptoms, the researchers found. Two patients had recurrent angina and required hospitalization three to five weeks after their return; one of these patients died.

"We conclude that long-distance flight aboard a commercial aircraft is reasonably safe within 2 to 3 weeks after an acute coronary syndrome, if the patient has no markers of high risk," the authors write.

David J. Frid, MD, director of preventive and rehabilitative cardiology at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Public Health in Columbus, says he has had about a dozen patients who flew home uneventfully within two weeks after an acute coronary event. "If the patient [has no symptoms] and we do an exercise test to rule out [other problems], then it should be safe," he says. "The plane is pressurized, and the oxygen levels are not high. You're probably at more risk running through the airport trying to catch the plane, or dragging a carry-on bag, than you are in the plane itself."

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