In-flight Medical Emergencies: Prevention Tips and Guidance


Carrie Fisher’s untimely, sad death has put in-flight medical emergencies in the headlines.  Understanding how in-flight medical emergencies work can help people be better prepared and better understand what an in-flight emergency is, who responds, and what help is available mid-flight.

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In-flight medical emergencies on commercial flights occur on about 50 flights A DAY, or over 17,000 times a year in the United States alone. Among the most common in-flight medical emergencies are cardiac problems, loss of consciousness, seizures, respiratory problems such as asthma, and musculoskeletal problems, such as strains, sprains, and fractures. Each year, several babies are born aboard airplanes as well.  In-flight medical emergencies occur spontaneously and are related to pressure changes (which can decrease the amount of oxygen available to breathe), lack of movement, and physiological responses to high altitudes.

EMA Care's Dr. Eliana Aaron has responded to many in-flight medical emergencies, including seizures, cardiovascular problems, gastrointestinal problems, drug/ alcohol overdose, diabetic emergencies, and other ailments.  Responders to in-flight medical emergencies can be physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, or paramedics.  On some flights - only the flight attendants are available to assist.  Conditions to treat people on an airplane are difficult at best – lack of human and medical resources, lack of space, and noise contribute to difficulties even performing basic medical evaluations.

You can do some things to reduce your risk of having an in-flight emergency and reduce your risk of complications or delayed care if you experience a medical emergency in-flight.

To keep you safer on flights, here is EMA Care’s list of precautions to take when traveling:
EMA Care's list of prevention strategies for in-flight medical emergencies:
Keep a list of medications you are taking clearly available. 
    1. DO NOT use medication for the first time right before or during the flight.
    2.  Wear a medical bracelet for any medical condition such as allergies/diabetes/epilepsy/medicines used/etc.
    3. Keep hydrated. The day before flying, drink plenty of fluids (and less caffeine) to prepare your body for flying. The cups available on flights are usually 4-6 ounces, so when offered a drink, request 2 drinks each time. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages when on board, as they will contribute to dehydration.
    4. If you have any special medical needs, discuss them with your physician or health care provider. If you need oxygen or other medical equipment while flying, these must be arranged ahead of time with the airline and may include additional fees.
    5. Stay seated during turbulence to avoid injuries!
    6. Some people with complex health problems may require medical accompaniment. EMA Care provides this service internationally, assuring that people reach their destination with appropriate support 
Additionally, walking and stretching on board is recommended to prevent blood clots.  This is especially true for longer flights. The Center for Disease Control has determined that people at risk for blood clots include:
    • Older age (over age 40) 
    • People who are overweight 
    • People who had surgery in the previous 3 months. 
    • Women using oral contraception pills or hormone replacement therapy 
    • Anyone with a family or personal history of blood clots 
    • People with recent cancer treatment (or a cancer diagnosis) 
    • People with limited mobility 
    • People with varicose veins

If you have any of these risk factors, discuss your flight plans with your physician.  In some cases, anti-clotting medication (an injection) may be prescribed to prevent a blood clot. 

The vast majority of people reach their destinations without a medical emergency, but EMA Care encourages everyone to take measures to prevent in-flight medical emergencies. EMA Care wishes you and your loved ones SAFE travels. 
EMA Care provides medical concierge, case management, and patient advocacy services to tourists, students, and Israel residents. You can contact usat  Schedule your free consultation today.
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