Can you fly when unwell?

There are a variety of reasons why a person who is unwell may still need a flight. Perhaps you became unwell while abroad, had elective surgery in another country, or have an existing condition and want to go on holiday anyway. Whatever the reason, arriving safely is important.

Flying is often the preferred way to travel; it’s quick, and most airlines provide services for the less able, so it should involve low physical effort. But before you book your flight, it’s best to check with your doctor and the airline if you’re fit to fly.

Can i fly when unwell

Can I get on a plane after surgery?

It’s always a good idea to discuss any travel plans with your doctor before commiting. The recommended time between surgery and flying varies depending on the complexity and extent of your procedure.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) advise the following waiting times:

  • One to two days after keyhole surgery
  • Four to five days after simple abdominal surgery
  • 10 days after major chest surgery
  • 10 days after major abdominal surgery
  • One day for simple cataract or corneal laser surgery
  • Seven days for more complex eye surgery (such as retinal detachment)

But if a gas bubble is used in your retinal detachment surgery the wait may be two to six weeks.

Even after this length of time, there may still be risks of infection, and considerable discomfort associated with flying.

Can I fly with a heart condition?

There are very few heart conditions that prevent a person from flying safely, but it’s still best to inform your airline of any pre-existing heart conditions and take specific precautions before you get on the plane. In general, if you’re stable and on medication, flying is fine, but be sure to check with your doctor and the airline first. Flying is not advisable if you have chest pain or are breathless when at rest. You should talk to your doctor and look into making other travel arrangements.

Here’s how some common heart conditions may affect your flight plans:


Angina does not usually affect a patient when flying – provided your symptoms are stable and you’re taking medication. However, if you get chest pain after simple exercise it may be a good idea to ask for assistance in getting around the airport.

Heart attack

Provided there have been no complications, you may be able to travel seven to ten days after the attack. If more direct action has been taken – for example the blocked artery has been successfully unblocked – than you may be able to fly after as few as two to three days.

Heart failure

If the condition is currently stable and being treated then you should still be able to fly. If you get breathless with gentle exercise then you may need to request assistance at the airport, and potentially oxygen during the flight.

Pacemaker/Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillators (ICD)

Modern pacemakers and ICDs are not affected by security screening equipment, and will have no effect on the aircraft’s electronic systems. However, they may set off the security alarm, so a letter from your doctor could be helpful (but not necessary) when talking to security staff.

Hypertension or high blood pressure

Air travel should not affect blood pressure, but your travel insurance may not cover additional treatment or complications so it is best to wait until your condition has been controlled.

Can I fly with a broken bone?

Treating a broken arm or leg usually requires a plaster/fiberglass cast to keep the broken bone still and stable. Although checks are made on the tightness of the cast to prevent loss of circulation to the tissues, there is still potential for the limb to swell after the cast is applied. Because of the risk of swelling, airlines often restrict flying during the first 24 to 48 hours. If you must fly before then, they recommend splitting the cast along its length before you fly, and replacing it when you reach your destination.

You will not be allowed to sit in an emergency exit row if you have a broken limb, and you may be required to purchase an extra seat to allow space if you are unable to bend your knee normally. This will also allow you to elevate your leg during the flight, further decreasing the chance of swelling.

Can I fly with lung problems?

Travelling by plane with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is safe, providing you have all your relevant medications in hand-luggage. Modern planes travel at an air pressure of roughly 5000/8000 feet, so there is a slight reduction in oxygen, but not much risk for patients with mild/moderate disease.

Extra oxygen should not be required if you can walk 50 metres at a normal pace, or climb a flight of stairs without significant breathlessness. If, however, extra oxygen is required, the airline should be told well in advance.

What if I can no longer fly?

If you are deemed unfit to fly but still need to travel, there are other options. We specialise in safely transporting patients – often across whole countries. We will advise you if flying on a commercial flight is not an option, and can provide a specialised medical plane instead. 

We can also provide a medical professional to accompany you on a commercial flight, allowing you to fly when otherwise you couldn’t. If flying is not an option then we can drive you home in one of our specially equipped ambulances.

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