What to do if there is a medical emergency during air travel

Medical emergency at a height of 35,000 feet or more? It is a horrible thought. But this may happen. A passenger may feel unwell during the flight. He/She may have an acute medical problem during the flight. Then what should be the duty of others? Read this article to know.

You are going on a vacation with your family members. Or you are returning from a vacation with others. Suddenly, during the flight, one of the members of your group falls ill. The last thing you want to think about is a family member getting sick on the plane. Still, medical emergencies in the sky happen every day. What kind of treatment is expected if a person passes out, chokes or otherwise becomes unwell at a height of 35,000 feet Let us discuss all these aspects.

Different types of in-flight medical problems

According to a study, the most common in-flight health issues included fainting, respiratory problems and nausea or vomiting. Heart attack and brain stroke are very rare but still can be seen. Sometime lady passengers may also have labour pain. The study also finds that the death rate among all passengers with in-flight medical emergencies was less than 1 percent.

What should be done by a person with medical history

First thing first. If a person has known medical history, at the time of going to vacation, he/she must carry the attending physician's prescription and the medicine with him/her. During the flight, the person must keep the prescription and medicine in the hand baggage. This simple precaution may play a great role in life-saving during an in-flight medical emergency.

What to do during medical emergency

If a person gets ill on board, and there is no medical practitioner in his/her group, if the person is travelling in a group, then the first responders will be members of the crew. The flight attendants are trained to handle medical emergencies and planes are equipped with first aid kits.

Is there a doctor available

Thereafter, the pilot asks for the assistance of a doctor in flight. This announcement is made again and again. Generally, the doctors available in the flight come forward to help the unwell passenger. Sometimes medical students and paramedics also come forward to help. If the patient with past medical history possesses the doctor's prescription and the medicines, then the treatment becomes more or less easy (if the patient suffers from the same problem in the flight).

The medicines generally available in flight

It is necessary to know the medicines and medical equipment generally available in flight. These are:-


Epinephrine, Antihistamine, Dextrose, Nitroglycerin tablets, Analgesic tablets and injections, Sedative anticonvulsant, Zofran, Atropine, Adrenocortical steroids, Diuretic, Medication for post-partum bleeding, Sodium Chloride, Acetylsalicylic acid and Oral beta blocker.

Medical equipment

Stethoscope, Sphygmomanometer, Oropharyngeal airways, Syringes, Needles, Intravenous catheters, System for delivering intravenous fluids, Antiseptic wipes, Venous tourniquet, Urinary catheter, Umbilical cord-clamp, Gloves, Basic life support cards, etc.

When to divert a flight

This decision is required to be taken by the pilot only. The role of the doctor (if available onboard) is to assist and advise the pilot. Generally, the following situations would necessitate a recommendation for flight diversion: (a) Patient requiring immediate or urgent treatment like acute heart failure, acute respiratory failure or distress and acute cardiovascular accident; (b) patient requiring continuing cardiopulmonary resuscitation and support (c) patient requiring continuing treatment to maintain blood pressure (hypotension or severe hypertension), especially if it is difficult to manage or control blood volume depletion; (d) unconsciousness; and (e) an obstetric emergency.

Telemedicine - a new but useful concept

Nowadays telemedicine can play an important role to save the life of a patient in a plane. Generally, pilot or co-pilot converses with telemedicine staff and writes down their directions. In many cases, the directions of telemedicine staff immensely help in a critical situation.

Summing up

In case of medical emergency in the air, the other members of the family must learn to keep cool. They must hand over the medical prescription and medicines (if any) to the flight staff or the doctor, if anyone available. Preliminary treatment can be done by the trained staff in absence of doctors. The decision relating to diversion of the plane is taken by the pilots and the passengers must have full trust in him. The accompanying passengers of the patient must scrupulously follow the directions of the pilot, attending doctor and other staff to avoid complications.

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Author: Natarajan23 Mar 2018 Member Level: Gold   Points : 6

If someone has motion sickness or travel sickness that is triggered by closed space, bends, ups and downs (like a car journey on a hilly slope), they should be careful while on a flight journey. They should not get dehydrated or have rich or heavy food. There are some tablets available for this travel sickness. If you do not take it, remember that you'll have a dry mouth and may feel drowsy.

Pregnant women must realize that during the early weeks, normal nausea and vomiting that pregnancy induces can worsen during air travel. Generally, air travel is not allowed beyond the 35-37 weeks. It would be wiser to check this with the particular airline (including onward and return) before booking the ticket.

If you do have to travel in the later stages of pregnancy, please check with your obstetrician regarding the strict no-fly conditions like precious pregnancy etc. It would be worthwhile to familiarise with the process of labor and childbirth so that in the event of an early delivery while in mid-air, at least as a mother you can understand what to expect and how to cope with this. Such mothers to be should also bear in mind to move around regularly during long-haul flights to avoid developing clots in the legs referred to as deep venous thrombosis.

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