Studies cited by The Lancet suggest that the risk of VTE increases when flight duration exceeds four hours. This raised risk is related to immobility, dehydration, and reduced oxygen in the cabin, as well as to individual risk factors such as obesity, recent surgery and predispositions to thrombosis (thrombophilias).
On the subject of risk Professor Kurt Huber, ESC spokesperson on Thrombosis, writes: "Prone to thromboembolic risk are those with a history of venous thrombosis or pulmonary embolism, but also those with a history of atherothrombotic diseases (for example, myocardial infarction or stroke) and those with heart failure, atrial fibrillation, and physical immobilisation." Professor Huber adds that even healthy people may develop thrombotic problems on a long-distance flight, notably pregnant women, women taking oral contraceptives (especially if they smoke) and the elderly. Those with concerns, he adds, should ask their doctor about their individual risk and the applicability of preventive measures, including medication.
With reference to the more serious cardiovascular complications of long-haul flight, Professor Panos E Vardas, president elect of the European Heart Rhythm Association (EHRA), commenting on behalf of the ESC, notes that loss of consciousness can occur during flight, for either benign or malignant reasons. The most common causes of benign episodes, explains Professor Vardas, include vasovagal syncope (fainting), whose most frequent cause is low blood pressure, especially in elderly patients who are taking certain medications.
Professor Vardas continues: "In the case of malignant arrhythmias, the loss of consciousness is most commonly attributed to ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation. Less dangerous cardiac arrhythmias which could also lead to loss of consciousness include paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, atrial flutter or paroxysmal atrial tachycardias.
The best course of action in the case of loss of consciousness is the currently recommended practice of ensuring that the patient remains in a lying down position, with the legs elevated. Simultaneously, if the syncopal episode lasts more than 30-40 seconds and if the automatic device advises defibrillation, the defibrillator should be activated.
Major European airlines already carry defibrillators and train their personnel to use them under the guidance of medical assistance on-ground. Hopefully, in the future, the use of automatic external defibrillators and the training of personnel will be extended to all commercial flights."
The European Society of Cardiology is currently preparing a policy statement on the safety of commercial air travel in cardiac patients.
The European Society of Cardiology (ESC):
The ESC represents nearly 53,000 cardiology professionals across Europe and the Mediterranean. Its mission is to reduce the burden of cardiovascular disease in Europe.
The ESC achieves this through a variety of scientific and educational activities including the coordination of: clinical practice guidelines, education courses and initiatives, pan-European surveys on specific disease areas and the ESC Annual Congress, the largest medical meeting in Europe. The ESC also works closely with the European Commission and WHO to improve health policy in the EU.
The ESC comprises 3 Councils, 5 Associations, 19 Working Groups, 50 National Cardiac Societies and an ESC Fellowship Community (Fellow, FESC; Nurse Fellow, NFESC). For more information on ESC Initiatives, Congresses and Constituent Bodies see www.escardio.org.
European Society of Cardiology, The European Heart House 2035 Route des Colles, B.P. 179 - Les Templiers, Sophia Antipolis F-06903 France
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