Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE
Author: Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE, General Practitioner (GP)

Dr Sarah Jarvis is the Clinical Director of the Patient Platform, an active medical writer, broadcaster, and the resident doctor for BBC Radio 2.

Originally posted: 12th Jun 2023

We all need a holiday now and again to relax and unwind. Ironically, the time we may need it most is after a major life event – including a major illness – and this may be the only time you’re not allowed to travel.

There are some situations where flying is not advised or not allowed. Fortunately, many of these restrictions are temporary. How long after these events you should avoid flying depends on how severe the condition was and your personal medical circumstances. You should always check with your doctor if you’ve had a recent medical problem: they will be able to advise when you’re fit to fly and what precautions you may need to take when you are.

The recommendations below apply to advice or restrictions for flying on scheduled flights – if you need repatriation to the UK, a flight may be possible with an air ambulance in some circumstances. Do remember that medical repatriation isn’t covered by the GHIC or EHIC arrangements, so it’s essential to take out travel insurance (that covers any pre-existing conditions) even if you are going to an area covered by GHIC agreements.

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When to Travel with a Medical Condition

This list covers the main conditions where it may be advised that you don’t fly. It doesn’t cover every eventuality – if you’re in any doubt, speak to your medical team first.

  • Current infection (e.g. flu, chicken pox).
    This is to avoid infecting others and for your own safety.

  • Current or recent sinus or middle ear infection.
    Flying can put increased pressure on your sinuses and middle ears and may cause pain or other complications.

  • A recently collapsed lung (pneumothorax).
    You should avoid flying, usually until about 3 weeks after your pneumothorax has completely resolved. The change in air pressure and lower levels of oxygen can cause the lung to collapse again or lead to breathing problems.

  • If you’re currently short of breath at rest.
    • If you have a long-term problem like COPD, you’re likely to find that too much exertion makes you short of breath. As long as your symptoms are stable, you’ll often be able to fly even if small amounts of activity make you breathless. However, it’s important to check with your doctor in advance – for instance, you may need a breathing test called spirometry before you go. You may also need to take oxygen with you - you can find out more from our top tips for travelling with COPD.

    • If you have asthma and it’s well controlled, you shouldn’t be any more likely than anyone else to have problems flying. However, it is essential to take your medication regularly and follow our top tips for travelling with asthma. If you have recently had an asthma attack or your symptoms are worse than usual, do check with a doctor if you’re safe to fly.
Looking Out Window
  • Current or recent angina or chest pain at rest.
    You can almost always travel, even if you have angina, as long as your symptoms are stable and don’t come on at rest.

  • Recent heart attack.
    You’ll usually be advised not to travel for at least 7-10 days after a heart attack – and even then, only if you’re not having any symptoms and haven’t had any complications. If you’re under 65, haven’t had a previous heart attack, don’t have any further treatment planned, and don’t have any symptoms, you may be able to travel sooner – but only if your doctor gives you the all-clear. You can find out more details from our top tips for travelling if you've had a heart attack.

  • Recent stroke or TIA (sometimes called a mini-stroke).
    The first few weeks after a stroke are when your risk of another stroke, or complications from it, are highest. You are highly likely to be advised by your doctor not to travel during this period. How long you need to wait will depend on lots of factors, including how severe the stroke was and whether your stroke was caused by a clot or a bleed on the brain. You can find out more details from our top tips for travelling after a stroke.

  • Recent decompression sickness (‘the bends’).
    If you dive, you’re always taught to come up to the surface slowly if you’ve dived to any depth. This is because when you dive deep, nitrogen is absorbed from your lungs and dissolved into your blood. If you rise too quickly, this nitrogen turns into gas bubbles. This can damage blood vessels and cause very severe joint and bone pains – this is called decompression sickness or sometimes ‘the bends’. Because the air pressure in a plane drops as you reach altitude, this can bring on symptoms if you haven’t been given enough time to get rid of all the nitrogen in your system.

    • If you’ve dived deep enough to need to stop at intervals before you reach the surface – so-called decompression stops – you should wait at least 24 hours before flying (even if you haven’t needed any decompression stops, you should wait at least 12 hours after 1 dive and 18 hours after more than one).

    • If you’ve had decompression sickness, don’t fly until you have been advised by your doctor that it’s safe to do so.
Plane Flying In Sky
  • Raised pressure inside the brain.
    Regardless of the cause – head injury, bleeding into the brain, or infection – you should never fly until you’ve been given permission by your doctor. This is because the drop in cabin pressure during the flight could further increase pressure in the brain.

  • Recent surgery on, or injury to, your bowel, eyes, face, or brain.
    Always check with your doctor about guidance for your condition.

  • Severe mental health conditions.
    If you’re suffering from severe mental ill-health, the stress of flying may bring on a mental health crisis. That’s why it’s essential that you check with your specialist team if you’re fit to fly. You may need a letter from your doctor to confirm your condition is stable before you’re allowed to fly.

  • Late stages of pregnancy.
    Most airlines don’t allow you to travel if you’re over 36 weeks pregnant (or over 32 weeks if you’re pregnant with twins or more). This is largely because of the risk of you going into labour on the flight, and the risk of delays to your treatment if the plane needs to be diverted.

    Do remember to factor in how many weeks into your pregnancy you’ll be for your return flight. Most airlines need a medical certificate from your doctor if you’re over 28 weeks pregnant, confirming your due date, that you’re healthy, and that your pregnancy is progressing normally. Your doctor will charge for this letter.
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A pre-existing is any medical condition for which medical advice, diagnosis, care, or treatment was recommended or received before applying for a travel insurance policy. For some conditions, we'll need to know if they have ever been present, whilst for others if they occurred within a certain period.

No, we are unable to provide cover with any of your pre-existing medical conditions excluded.

It is simple and quick to do! After you've told us about your trip details and answered some medical history questions you can add your pre-existing conditions, one by one, for each traveller. You'll only need to enter your details once, it's all online and there's no need to call, or provide details of your conditions in writing.

If you don't travel much then a single trip cover is perfect as you can cover specific dates suited to your trip. If you have cancellation cover, you'll also benefit from this as soon as you buy your policy.

If you travel 2 or more times a year, it may be cheaper for you to go for an annual multi-trip cover. It's best to start your annual trip cover as soon as possible, as if you have cancellation cover, you'll only benefit from this from your policy start date.

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