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Doctors agree that as far there are no existing complications, flight travel during pregnancy need not be of any concern. The ideal time to travel is during the second trimester where you are past the morning sickness experienced during the first trimester and several weeks away from the third trimester when you need to exercise most caution.
Is Travelling by Aeroplane Safe During Pregnancy?
Can pregnant women fly? Yes, as long as they’ve had an uncomplicated pregnancy until now, a pregnant woman can travel by air up to 36 weeks into their pregnancy. However, there are conditions that can get aggravated by air travel, and women who have previously had miscarriages, foetal loss, and premature delivery should avoid flying. There are known medical problems such as spotting, gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and ruptured placenta that put women at high risk when they fly and it is best to check with a doctor if it is safe to travel by air in pregnancy.
When to Fly During Pregnancy
The best time to travel by flight during pregnancy is in your second trimester, that’s 14 to 27 weeks. This is the time of pregnancy when women feel their best. Their energy levels are high and they are at the least risk of experiencing a miscarriage or going into premature labour. The first trimester is when most women experience morning sickness and are at the highest risk of a miscarriage, therefore doctors recommend against any unnecessary travelling activity during this period.
The third trimester is not risky as long as the pregnancy is uncomplicated. Most airlines allow pregnant women to fly up to 28 weeks without any questions. For flight travel, during the 7th month of pregnancy, you might need signed consent from your doctor or a health care provider that confirms the due date and that you are unlikely to go into labour in flight.
What Are the Risks of Flying When Pregnant?
If you are travelling by flight during pregnancy, here are a few risks you need to know about:
Deep vein thrombosis
Flying long hours while seated in an aeroplane slows circulation to the leg and the pelvic region. This raises the risks of blood clots forming in the veins, which is one of the primary dangers of flying when pregnant. If these clots travel to the vital organs such as the lungs or the heart, they can be life-threatening. Pregnant women are a higher risk of this condition, called deep vein thrombosis especially when they are overweight or have had previous cases of DVT.
Nasal and ear congestion problems
If you frequently have a blocked nose or are sensitive to changes in pressure, the air conditioning in the cabin combined with changes in cabin pressure cause congestion in your nose and ears.
Pockets of uneven, turbulent air at high altitudes can violently rock an aircraft. Since severe air turbulence cannot be predicted it poses a real threat of injury to anyone who is not strapped into their seat. This is especially risky of pregnant women flying during the 3rd trimesters can be significant physical trauma to the body.
One risk of air travel comes from breathing contaminated cabin air in the aeroplane. The air supplied into the cabin comes from the jet engine compressors. If there is a dysfunction in the systems, such as a leak in the seals, toxic fumes can leak into the cabin. Though it does not produce any immediate effect, some of the toxins can be threatening to a growing foetus.
Long flights can cause swelling of your legs due to retention of fluids, a condition called oedema. Women who still experience pregnancy sickness or are prone to motion sickness can have a tough time while flying, as the pressure changes and motion can worsen their sickness and make them nauseous.
Health Problems That Warrant Consideration for Travelling by Air
There are a number of health problems that pregnant women need to look out for while flying. Consulting your doctor before flying is mandatory if you have one or more of these conditions:
- Gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and preeclampsia
- Signs of miscarriage such as cramps, pain and bleeding
- If you are under observation for preterm labour
- Cervical insufficiency
- Intrauterine growth restriction
- Ectopic pregnancy or a history of miscarriage
- History of DVT, blood clots, varicose veins
- Premature rupture of membranes (PROM)
How to Stay Comfortable During a Flight in Pregnancy
A few simple procedures can ensure your air travel is a smooth experience. Here are some tips that make flying during pregnancy a breeze:
- While booking your flight, pick a seat adjacent to the wing, this is the most stable portion of the aircraft with minimal movement. Choose an aisle seat so there’s extra room for you to stretch your legs in-flight and to easily get to the restroom. You can also consider a business or first class for the most comfort.
- Have a light meal before you board the flight. Avoid consuming anything that you know will cause gas and bloating later on.
- Pack all your comfort essentials such as a neck pillow, heat pack, water bottle and anything else that keeps you relaxed.
- Eating small meals, light snacks, crackers, mint candy, etc. can ease your air sickness or any queasiness that you might feel, so stock up on those.
- Sitting in the same position for a long time can initiate stiffness, swelling in the feet and cramps. Therefore get up once an hour and stroll up and down the aisle while doing simple stretches. If there’s an empty seat next to yours, put your feet up and stretch. You could also rotate your ankles and wiggle your toes to help improve blood circulation
- Wear support socks in flight. They keep the blood circulation flowing well and help relieve swollen veins and reduce the risk of thrombosis.
- The conditioned air in the cabin can sap moisture and leave you dehydrated, so drink plenty of fluids.
- Your seatbelt should always be fastened in case of turbulence in the air. Make sure it goes under the belly and low on the hips.
Tips for Planning Flight Travel When Pregnant
Make sure you are ready for your trip with the following tips:
Consult Your Physician or Health Care Provider
The first step is to ask your doctor if it is safe to fly. Especially in circumstances of international flying while pregnant, there are multiple risk factors that need to be understood and dealt with. Depending on how far you are into your pregnancy and any health problems you may have, your doctor can assess whether it is safe for you to fly. Getting the doctor’s written consent also makes all the difference in dealing with the airline’s policies on pregnant women.
Search for Pregnancy-friendly Airlines
Several airlines offer special support to pregnant women. Make a list and choose the one that best suits you. Keeping them pre-informed of your pregnancy is an advantage as they can offer you the best choices in seating, in-flight food services, wheelchair escorts, help with baggage and additional courtesies that are not offered to other passengers. Most airlines require a physician’s consent after the 28th week of pregnancy and do not let you fly after 36 weeks, so enquire about their policies and restrictions before you book.
Carry All the Essentials and Take Precautions
Make sure you’re equipped with all your basic needs such as a neck pillow, prescription medications from your doctor, healthy snacks, plenty of fluids and comfortable clothing. Book seats that allow you to sit comfortably and offer easy access to the nearest lavatory. Stay strapped into your seat all times except when you take breaks to stretch and move around a bit.
Carry an Emergency Contact Sheet in Flight During Pregnancy
In the event of an emergency, it is imperative that the person attending to you gets a hold of all the essential information they need such as contact numbers of doctors and family and the medical history. Some of the information that needs to go on the list includes:
- Name and contact numbers of your health care provider
- Name and phone numbers of your emergency contacts
- Your local information including your address and telephone number
- Your prenatal and medical history that has information about your due date, most recent check-up, allergies, immunisation history, prior births, and health care provider’s comments
- Your health insurance company’s name, phone and the policy number
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions by pregnant women who need to fly:
1. Are pregnant women allowed to travel during pregnancy?
Yes, women with healthy pregnancies can fly up to 36 weeks without having to worry. Also, most airlines require your health care provider’s signed consent that you are fit to fly after 28 weeks.
2. Is there a risk of miscarriage?
The risk of a miscarriage flying during the first trimester is the highest and if you have had a history of one, it is advisable not to fly. Women with healthy pregnancies can fly throughout all the trimesters without risk of miscarriage.
3. Walking through an airport screening machine: Is it safe?
Yes, it is safe to walk through the screening machines at an airport. Metal detectors use a low-intensity magnetic field to detect metallic objects that have no influence on our bodies. The rest of the scanners either use radio waves or low-intensity X-Rays to scan through your clothes. The radiation dosages involved with them are expressed in units of microsieverts. The instruments use levels as low as 1 microsievert whereas it takes 5,00,000 microsieverts to harm your unborn child.
4. Can the cabin pressure in the plane cause any harm to my baby?
There is no evidence to show that cabin pressure affects the unborn baby. The cabin pressures are set to compensate for the lowered atmospheric pressures at higher altitudes. However, smaller non-commercial aircraft have unpressurised cabins. The lowered pressure and oxygen at high altitudes while flying in these can lead to hypoxia and dizziness.
5. Can the radiation in the plane cause any harm to my baby?
The radiation associated with high altitude flights are minimal and are due to cosmic rays originating from the sun and outer space. Normally their levels are negligible and pose no threat. However, during rare events like geomagnetic storms which affect the higher and lower latitudes, the radiation levels can go up significantly. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put up storm alerts on their website a few days in advance in case of a geomagnetic storm. Pregnant women can delay their flights during this period by a day or two to stay on the safer side especially since the effects of radiation during first-trimester flying can be significant.
6. Will the change in altitude increase my morning sickness?
It’s possible that sudden changes in altitude and the associated temperature and pressure can trigger or aggravate nausea. But once the body gets used to it, the sickness subsides.
While you may be avoiding flying during pregnancy, there may be unavoidable situations which make it necessary. Make sure you keep in mind the risks involved, consult a doctor, and take all the necessary precautions if you are flying during pregnancy.
Also Read: Travelling by Car During Pregnancy