Calling Dr. Bauer
Dear Dr. Bauer,
I have COPD and haven’t flown in a long time. How do I know if I need extra oxygen while I am in the air?
Chris Davenport, Florida
Many of my patients ask whether they will need oxygen in flight and what special preparations they need to make beforehand. Our modern jets pressurize their cabins to an equivalent altitude of about 8,000 feet. This means that compared to sea level, the air will be thinner during flight and all of our oxygen saturations will drop a bit.
If you are using oxygen at home all the time, you will need to continue to use oxygen during flight, and generally speaking, should increase your flow rate by a liter or two. If your room air saturation is below 92% at sea level, it’s also recommended that you consider the use of oxygen during flight.
Most important, be prepared and do your homework before flying. Call your airline to determine specific requirements. Most want a signed letter from your doctor stating your need for oxygen and your liter flow. You cannot take your portable oxygen tank onboard! Fortunately, the newer portable battery powered concentrators are permitted on the airlines. The airlines will not supply your oxygen in the waiting areas either at departing or arriving airports. Your home oxygen company is usually very helpful to coordinate this aspect of your travel.
It’s very important to take all of your medicines, inhalers, MDIs and portable nebulizers with you onboard. Tell your doctor to write a note so you can get by security with all those funny looking devices. Despite all the planning involved, it’s very rare that you will have any problem at all during flight. If you are going someplace warm and nice this season, have fun. I’m very jealous!