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Flying After Stroke: How Long to Wait + Tips for Safe Travel

man waiting in airport terminal flying after stroke

A stroke is a serious medical event that is often accompanied by many secondary effects. Stroke can lead to changes in physical function, decreased mobility, and fear of experiencing another cerebrovascular event. As a result, many survivors may be concerned regarding future travel and have questions about flying after stroke such as:

How long after a stroke can I fly? What medical conditions make flying unsafe? Does flying increase my risk of stroke, and what happens in the worst-case scenario?

These are all valid questions for anyone hoping to fly after stroke. Thankfully, there are some general guidelines for stroke survivors interested in flying to ensure safety and increase peace of mind. To help prepare you for safe travel, this article will review these guidelines for flying after stroke as well as helpful tips and tricks to make your journey as stress-free as possible.

Guidelines for Flying After Stroke

One of the biggest questions survivors of stroke have is how soon it is safe to fly. The Stroke Association suggests it is best to wait at least two weeks to fly after stroke. This is because you are at the highest risk of experiencing a secondary stroke in the first 30 days after your initial stroke.

To avoid having a stroke while on a plane and away from emergency treatment, it’s often a good idea to wait one month out of caution. If any new post-stroke conditions occur within the first few weeks, you want to have medical attention readily available.  

Every stroke is different, so it is important to get clearance from your doctor before you fly. They can determine if you are medically stable enough to participate in air travel. Otherwise, it’s best to remain on land where emergency medical attention is quickly and easily accessible if needed. Don’t gamble with your life. If your travel plans are flexible, it’s best to wait.

Risks to Consider Before Flying After Stroke

By understanding the risks of flying after stroke, you can have an informed discussion with your doctor on when it’s safe to fly again. Here are some complications that can accompany flying after stroke:

Hypercoagulability (Excessive Blood Clotting)

Hypercoagulability increases the risk of excessive blood clotting and can be an inherited or acquired condition. This increases the risk of ischemic stroke, which takes place when an artery in the brain becomes blocked by a blood clot. 

Risk of developing a clot has been found to be increased during and after air travel by many research studies. In fact, clot risk may be elevated by as much as 26% for longer flight times.  

Although the exact causes of travel-related hypercoagulability or clotting is still debated, this is likely due to a combination of factors including immobility.  When you sit for excessive periods of time on a plane, your circulation slows and this increases the risk of clotting.

A deep vein thrombosis is one example of this and occurs when a blood clot forms in the leg. This clot can also break loose and clog an artery in the lungs, causing a life-threatening condition called pulmonary embolism.

Reduced Oxygen Levels

The air pressure is lower on a plane, which means there is less oxygen available to fuel your body, including the brain. During stroke recovery, oxygen is critical for recovery (see: oxygen therapy for stroke), so it’s best to avoid sitting in an environment with less oxygen for prolonged periods of time.

Although reduced oxygen levels while flying are unlikely to pose a risk for survivors of stroke, this can be an issue for those with comorbidities such as breathing difficulties or a heart condition. Again, it is best to speak with your doctor to determine if flying is a safe option for you.

Delayed Medical Treatment

If you were to experience a stroke on a plane, the pilot may attempt to make an emergency landing to get you the emergency medical attention you need. Although lives have been saved by emergency landings before, the time it takes for you to receive appropriate treatment may still be prolonged. This is why many doctors suggest waiting for a period of time before flying after stroke.

Overall, the incidence of stroke while flying is low, but it is still important to exercise caution and follow the advice of your medical team. Now that we have reviewed the risks that can accompany flying, let’s discuss how to make your trip as safe as possible if you decide to fly after stroke.

Tips for Flying After Stroke

Although travel is exciting and creates new opportunities, it can be stressful or overwhelming at times. This may be especially true for survivors of stroke, especially if you’ve experienced changes in mobility or are concerned about the risks of flying.

However, there are many things you can do when flying to help decrease the risk of developing a clot and reduce travel stress. If you have been cleared to fly after stroke, here are some tips to improve your safety and wellbeing:

  • Wear compression socks, especiallyif you have hypercoagulability. Compression socks help improve circulation and can reduce the risk of blood pooling or clotting in the legs.
  • Walk around when the fasten seatbelt light is off and it is safe to do so. Movement helps prevent blood clotting issues like deep vein thrombosis. If you cannot walk around due to turbulence or other reasons, perform leg exercises while seated (march in place, bend knees, pump ankles, etc.)
  • Keep medication in your carry-on bag so it is easily available. Be sure not to accidentally leave it in your checked bag, as this poses a risk of your medication being inaccessible if your baggage is lost in transit. Additionally, make sure you bring enough medication to last your entire trip.
  • Carry medical documentation and declare medication upon arrival in a new country. Some countries may confiscate undeclared medication, so make sure you are aware of your destination’s specific requirements before you leave.
  • Contact the airline to arrange special assistance at least 48-72 hours before flying. This may include vision assistance, hearing assistance, wheelchair service, and mobility and medical device transport. Additionally, airports have assistance points where you can request transportation assistance to help you navigate the airport if your mobility is limited.
  • Get travel insurance so your trip is protected. This can help you avoid issues if your flights or other travel plans need to be refunded or rescheduled. Additionally, medical care abroad can be extremely expensive, so make sure you are aware of how your health coverage will work when traveling.
  • Be mindful of what you eat and drink since this can have a direct affect on blood pressure, an important stroke risk factor. Staying hydrated and avoiding excessive salty snacks can help you feel better and avoid elevated blood pressure.
  • Give yourself an extra hour to get through security and walk to your terminal. This ensures you have time to check or transport all necessary baggage and equipment without additional stress. It is also important to allow yourself sufficient time to rest when creating your travel itinerary.
  • Travel with a companion if possible so that someone can assist you if you need help. This can give you peace of mind when traveling, especially your first time flying after stroke.

Flying After Stroke: An Overview

Although risk of a recurrent stroke is a concern for all survivors, flying is a safe mode of transportation in most cases. Overall, it’s up to your doctor to decide if and when it is safe for you to fly after stroke. Everyone has different risk factors and medical complications that may require a greater waiting time before flying.

When you receive medical clearance, make sure you are prepared for travel and are aware of airline and destination guidelines regarding your health status and medications. Take precautions like wearing compression stockings, moving frequently, and allowing for additional time to reach your gate.

We hope this article has helped educate you on the risks of flying after stroke, the importance of consulting your medical team, and different tips to help keep you safe during travel. Your health is the most important factor, so exercise good judgement and enjoy your travels.

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