A guide to flying with high blood pressure
Do you, or does somebody close to you, have high blood pressure? It’s one of the most common long-term health conditions, affecting 1 in 3 UK adults – and also one of the most serious. Because while it usually doesn’t cause any symptoms, high blood pressure is a leading factor in heart attacks and strokes (in fact 40% of all heart attacks and 60% of strokes are caused by high blood pressure), which is why it’s often dubbed a ‘silent killer’.
The good news is it can be treated, and providing it’s well controlled, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to fly with high blood pressure. But it’s a good idea to be prepared and aware of any potential complications of high blood pressure on holiday, so you can enjoy a relaxing, carefree trip. Here’s what you need to know.
What is high blood pressure?
Blood pressure refers to the pressure at which your heart’s pumping blood around your body. The ideal range is 90/60mmHg - 120/80mmHg; anything from 140/90mmHg and over is considered high. Anybody can potentially have high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, but it’s far more common in over-50s.
“There are about 16 million people in the UK with high blood pressure: Nine million who know they’ve got it and seven million that don’t,” explains Julie Ward, a Senior Cardiac Nurse with British Heart Foundation. “Very occasionally, people will experience headaches or blurred vision or feel a bit lightheaded, but that’s rare. You can have high blood pressure for a long time and not know you’ve got it. Some find out for the first time when they present to A&E with a heart attack or stroke.”
Dr Albert Alahmar, Consultant Interventional Cardiologist at Spire Hull and East Riding Hospital, stresses that everybody on blood pressure medication needs to take it seriously.
“People are unaware how serious hypertension is. It’s a very common condition, we’re talking about 20% of the population above 40 and it’s essential it’s treated,” he says.
Why is blood pressure medication so important?
Lifestyle changes play an important role in managing high blood pressure, particularly keeping salt intake low, not smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight, but medication’s also crucial and some people are prescribed multiple drugs. If you’ve never experienced symptoms or felt unwell, the idea of being on long-term medication can seem odd. But, as Dr Alahmar highlights, there’s been a lot of research around the effects of high blood pressure and if left untreated, “the risks of stroke and heart attacks rocket”.
According to Blood Pressure UK, an alarming proportion of people with high blood pressure are not receiving treatment. Plus, of those who have been prescribed blood pressure drugs, recent Public Health England figures suggest 50-80% do not take all of their medication.
This might also explain why some people don’t declare their high blood pressure when taking out travel insurance. A survey in 2014 found 1 in 20 holidaymakers aged over 50 failed to declare a medical condition in a bid to cut costs, while Foreign & Commonwealth Office figures suggest 1 in 7 holidaymakers in the over-50s bracket have travelled without insurance. According to reports, high blood pressure is the second most likely health condition people fail to declare when taking out travel insurance.
Make sure you’re fully covered
Even if your blood pressure has never caused any problems and is very well controlled, it’s crucial to declare it, along with any medication you’ve been prescribed. If you don’t and you end up falling ill and incurring costs, you may not be covered.
Every week, the Financial Ombudsman Service receives complaints from holidaymakers who’ve had travel insurance claims rejected – failure to declare pre-existing conditions is one of the most common reasons.
“If you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure, then you should declare that on your travel insurance, because it is a long-term condition,” says Ward. “Because there are so many people that have high blood pressure, the premiums shouldn’t be too high, especially if it’s well controlled.”
Your premiums won’t necessarily change very much - this will depend on other factors too, including your age, how many drugs you’re taking, and other aspects of your health history – so it’s worth comparing prices to see what travel insurance for high blood pressure options are available.
Managing your medication on holiday
So, what else do you need to know about managing blood pressure on holiday? Dr Alahmar says sticking to your medication regime is vital. “Your tablets should be taken every single day – but it may be even more important to take your tablets when you travel, because of the change in conditions and the flights.”
Can you fly with high blood pressure, and what about high blood pressure and long-haul flights?
Ensuring your blood pressure is well managed is the important thing, because there can be an impact on blood pressure when on an airplane. If not well controlled, or if you’re flying with high blood pressure and pregnant, talk to your doctor before making plans so they can advise on whether it’s safe for you to travel.
“When you’re flying, the atmosphere in the plane is totally different,” Dr Alahmar notes. “How we respond to that varies from one person to another, but if you measured the blood pressure of people on an airplane, compared to on the ground, almost certainly they will have higher blood pressure [on the plane].”
Ward adds: “Make sure you’ve got an adequate supply of medication so you don’t run out while you’re on holiday.”
Taking at least an extra fortnight’s worth with you is a good idea, in case you lose some or end up delayed. While you’ll probably have access to a pharmacy on holiday, not all countries have the same brands of drugs – and Dr Alahmar explains that switching to a different drug overseas can be dangerous. “You don’t want to run out of tablets in a different country, as they may not have these [same] tablets. There are different families of drugs for treating high blood pressure, and we know for a fact that every patient responds to different drugs in different ways, so you may not respond to a new drug in the same way. It can be quite serious to change to different brands when you are on holiday.”
Monitoring your blood pressure on holiday
Ward and Dr Alahmar both advise taking a blood pressure monitor with you on holiday. “Blood pressure machines are much easier and less expensive to buy than ever before, and if you’ve got high blood pressure, you should really be monitoring it at home and while you’re away,” says Ward. “We recommend monitoring twice a day; once in the morning, once in the evening and keep a diary. Then when you’re travelling, you can make sure it’s still OK.”
Anything from the stress of rushing through the airport, to changes in routine and climate can potentially affect your blood pressure. Foreign food can often be saltier, and Dr Alahmar notes that keeping well hydrated, especially in hot, sunny countries, is very important for people on blood pressure medication.
Sitting down to monitor your blood pressure only takes a few minutes – not a big price to pay for peace of mind. Then you can focus on the important stuff: Enjoying that well-earned break.