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: 3rd May 2022

Planning for a happy, healthy holiday

There are hundreds of conditions that can affect your heart. Around 7.4 million people in the UK are living with conditions that have an impact on their heart and circulation – so-called cardiovascular disease or CVD. They are surprisingly common – in fact, twice as many people are living with CVD then Alzheimer's and cancer combined, and they account for over one in four deaths in the UK. What's more, they don't only affect older people - about 44,000 under 75's die from CVD every year.

The good news is that with better treatments (including preventive treatments like blood pressure and cholesterol lowering medications) death rates from heart conditions has dropped by more than ¾ in the last 60 years. But while part of this dramatic improvement have been down to fewer people having heart attacks, strokes etc, part of it is down to better treatment, which mean more people survive. That in turn means more people than ever are living with heart conditions and wanting to get on with their lives – including spending time with their loved ones and going on holiday.

The most common heart conditions in the UK include heart attack, angina, atrial fibrillation (the most common abnormal heart rhythm in the UK, affecting about one million people) and heart failure (where your heart can't pump blood as efficiently as it should around your body).

Having a heart condition certainly should not stop you enjoying a holiday, but you should plan in advance to reduce the risk of running into problems. Here are my top tips for a happy, healthy holiday.

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What sort of holiday should you take?

If you're going anywhere you haven't been since you were diagnosed (or if your condition has changed), contact your GP or specialist team in advance to check they're happy for you to travel.

The sort of holiday should you take partly depends on how recently you were diagnosed and treated: for instance, you should always wait until you've had the all clear from your medical team before you travel after a heart attack or heart surgery.

Relaxing or stimulating?

Physical activity is a crucial part of recovering from heart and circulation problems, including heart attack or stroke. But very vigorous exercise, especially at extreme temperatures, can put extra pressure on your heart. The last thing you need on holiday is to end up in hospital because your heart can't cope. So, don't plan a holiday that involves any activity more vigorous than anything you've undertaken in the UK since your condition was diagnosed.

What climate is best?

Very hot or very cold temperatures can put an extra strain on your heart. This may be a particular issue if you have angina or heart failure. It's worth discussing with your specialist team (if you're under regular follow-ups from the hospital) before you book.

Think carefully about high altitudes. The higher you go - especially if you're more than 2,000 metres above sea level – the 'thinner' the air: in other words, the higher the air, the less oxygen there is in it. Your body needs enough oxygen – breathed in through your lungs, transferred to your blood and passed around your body through your circulation – to survive. Any shortage can result in shortness of breath and light-headedness. If your heart or circulation are under par, this can make you more prone to symptoms at high altitudes.

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My top tips on travelling

Have you had a heart attack? My top tips on travelling after a heart attack tells you all you need to know about how soon you should travel, what precautions you should take and what you should look out for.

  1. If you have a pacemaker or ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator), you will need to take your device identification card with you to the airport. Check with your travel provider if you need to let them know in advance, but always tell staff when you get to the airport. While recent research suggests it may be safe to go through airport security scanners with a pacemaker or ICD, you can ask for a hand search instead. Security personnel should be aware that a hand-held metal detector should not be placed directly over your device.

  2. Keep your medication with you in your hand luggage, and ideally split it with someone else you're travelling with just in case your hand luggage goes astray. Do make sure you know the rules about what medication can go in your hand luggage, whether the country you're visiting has restrictions on certain medicines etc.

  3. Request a repeat prescription well in advance so you have enough medicine to last your whole holiday and a week or two extra, and take a list of your medicines or a letter from your doctor (you'll definitely need a letter if you're taking liquids or creams over 100ml etc).

  4. You must also book the right travel insurance ahead of travel. Most heart conditions need to be declared in advance, to prevent your insurance being invalidated if you have a problem.

  5. If you have angina and use a GTN (glyceryl trinitrate) spray, you can safely use this on the plane if you need to.

  6. It's perfectly safe to travel if you have high blood pressure, as long as it's controlled with medication.

  7. For most people with heart failure, the slightly lower oxygen levels in an aircraft shouldn't lead to breathlessness. However, if your symptoms aren't controlled or have recently worsened, you shouldn't travel without an okay from your doctor. They may recommend delaying your trip or using oxygen on board (this needs to be arranged well in advance with your airlines).

  8. If you need a wheelchair or other assistance at the airport, contact your airline or travel agent well in advance to arrange this. It's important to be clear about what support you need: transfer from the car park or bus stop to the terminal, a wheelchair to the gate, help at security gates or getting onto the plane or a specific seat on the aircraft.

  9. On the day you travel, leave plenty of time to get to the airport so you're not stressed. Use a suitcase on wheels to avoid heavy lifting.
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A pre-existing condition is a diagnosed medical condition that existed before taking out a policy. We'll ask a series of questions about the medical history for you and any travellers on your quote. If you answer yes to any of these, you will need to tell us about the traveller's conditions. This could be a condition that a traveller has now or has had in the past. If you are not sure what conditions you need to declare, we have online support available to help you 24/7!

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.

Once you've declared all of your relevant pre-existing medical conditions, we'll only show you quotes based on the conditions you have told us about.

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