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.

6 min read

If you’re planning to fly soon, there’s a good chance you’re off on holiday – and the last thing you want to think about is a medical emergency while you’re on board. If somebody else becomes ill, there’s a chance you’ll hear an announcement asking if there’s a medical professional on board. Your plane could be delayed if it hasn’t left the ground, or diverted if you’re already en route. This can be worrying – but it’s far more scary if the casualty is you.

How often do medical emergencies happen?

Fortunately, medical emergencies on airplanes are uncommon – it’s estimated that there are between 24 and 130 medical emergencies for every million passengers who fly. What’s more, if you have a medical condition, there are lots of steps you can take, depending what condition you have, to reduce the risk that you’ll be that casualty on the plane.

Check out our blogs and top tips on individual health conditions to find out more.

What are the most common medical emergencies?

The most common in-flight emergencies include:

  • Heart problems (or symptoms that may be due to heart problems).
  • Feeling or being sick.
  • Breathing problems.
  • Fainting or feeling faint.

Most medical emergencies can be safely dealt with on board without being diverted. About 1 in 12 people were admitted to the hospital when they landed – the most common reasons for needing hospital admission were stroke, health problems, and breathing issues.

Can cabin crew help?

All cabin crew are required to have up-to-date first aid training and can deal with up to 70% of medical emergencies without needing to call on anyone else for help. As well as standard first-aid, they’ll be taught how to deal with issues that are more common on a flight, such as low blood oxygen.

Staff will also be trained to use a defibrillator – although it’s not a legal requirement for planes in the UK to have a defibrillator on board, many do – and it’s a legal requirement for airlines in some other countries. They’ll also have access to a basic first aid kit, including bandages, cold packs, etc.

In a review of over 10,000 medical emergencies on board, there was a doctor on half the flights who was able to offer assistance. Even if there isn’t, the cabin crew have lots of experience and can call on 24-hour medical call centres for help if they need it.

If the cabin crew assesses the patient and agrees that professional medical help is needed and there’s no doctor on board, they’ll contact an approved medical call centre. Here, they’ll be connected to a consulting physician for recommendations on a treatment plan – it’s this physician who will make the ultimate call.

Should the situation be too serious to handle on board, the flight crew will liaise with the physician and ground crew to decide whether an emergency landing is necessary. Emergency services would then be notified at the airport so that the patient can be whisked to the nearest medical facility once the plane has touched down.

Flying Plane

Keeping yourself safe on board

Whatever your medical condition, ‘be prepared’ is an important motto to live by. As well as ensuring you have any medication or other supplies you need, do make sure you’ve taken out specialist travel insurance. Otherwise, an emergency on board could lead to a trip to hospital which could lead to a very large bill.

If you have an individual health condition

If you’re taking regular medication, it’s always a good idea to carry it with you in your hand luggage – and even more crucial is there’s any chance you might need it in flight.

Your cabin crew may need to know about your medical condition in advance, especially if they’ll need to take action for everyone on the plane. For instance, if you have a severe nut allergy, some airlines operate nut-free flights. As well as ensuring there are no nut products in the food served on board, they can make an announcement to ensure no passenger opens or consumes any nut-containing food they’ve brought on board. You should also let the crew know if you have an adrenaline auto-injector, as they may need to use it if you can’t.

If you’re concerned about flying, it’s worth having a chat with your doctor or specialist nurse well in advance. They’ll be able to advise on whether there’s a risk high altitudes could make your symptoms worse (eg if you have COPD) and what steps you can take.

Avoiding clots

Flying, especially long haul, does slightly increase the risk of a clot on the leg called a DVT or deep vein thrombosis. This clot can break off and travel to your lungs, leading to a potentially deadly complication called pulmonary embolus. You can find out more from our guide about whether you’re at increased risk of DVT.

Regardless of your level of risk, it’s worth taking steps (literally!) to cut your risk of DVT on board. Keep the blood flowing in your calves by doing regular ankle circles, knee lifts, and foot pumps; get up and walk up and down the cabin (an aisle seat makes this easier); keep your intake of non-alcoholic fluid up, but avoid alcohol; and don’t take sleeping tablets.

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