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Woozy, wheezy and queasy: Most common in-flight illnesses

Karen Warren / AP file

Air medical emergencies can occur to unsuspecting passengers, a new study finds.

When your flight crew asks if there’s a physician onboard, chances are your fellow passenger-in need is severely woozy, wheezy or queasy: the three most common in-flight medical emergencies, according to a first-of-its-kind study on airplane illnesses released Wednesday.

Fainting flyers account for 37 percent of cases in which flight crews must radio doctors on the ground to seek advice, while cardiac problems most often prompt pilots to land at the nearest airport, reports an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

But sit back and relax: Researchers found that aside from the need for anti-nausea pills to be stocked in every commercial airliner, the current pre-flight health coaching for airline employees – and the medical tools at their disposal – are usually more than enough to coax ill flyers through bumpy medical moments.

“For the vast majority of emergencies, there is sufficient assistance onboard both in terms of flight attendants who receive training on the use of a defibrillator or performing CPR, as well as the contents of onboard medical kits,” said Dr. Christian Martin-Gill, a co-author of the study. He also handles health-crisis calls from jets through his job at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“Certainly, though, there are some conditions that require additional medical management – and not management that would optimally be provided in an aircraft,” Martin-Gill said. “In those cases, we’re able to determine if there would need to be a flight diversion so that passenger would get medical attention quickly at a hospital.”

The researchers dissected 11,920 in-flight medical crises spanning 2008 to late 2010 that required flight crews to summon the expertise of physicians on the ground. They determined that abdominal pain accounted for 4.1 percent of those urgent radio dispatches in addition to seizures (5.8 percent), cardiac symptoms (7.7 percent), nausea (9.5 percent), respiratory problems (12.1 percent) and passing out or feeling faint (37.4 percent), the study showed.

Why are thousands of flyers blacking out while up in the wild blue yonder?

When traveling at high altitude in a pressurized cabin, the content of oxygen in the air is lower than at sea level and that can cause some people – especially folks with lung conditions – to lose consciousness, Martin-Gill said. (Such passengers should ask their doctors if they need supplemental oxygen while traveling). Two other reasons for the in-flight swoons: Some passengers are traveling with pre-existing intestinal illnesses – perhaps returning from vacations – or they haven’t been drinking enough water, leading to dehydration and lower blood pressure.

“These passengers do quite well by raising their legs, having them lay horizontally and drinking liquids,” Martin-Gill said.

The study marked the first large data set to be published on serious medical illnesses among flyers, so it’s unclear whether the rates of sickness are climbing aloft.

The researchers also were unable to cull from the data how often alcohol consumption onboard was at play for the sudden sicknesses. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were 131 cases of unruly passengers on U.S. airlines in 2011, the last full year for which statistics are available. That’s down from a peak of 330 cases in 2004.

In nearly half of the reported medical situations, a physician happened to be riding on the plane and was able to help soothe the ailing flyer, according to the study. Another 20 percent of the time, a nurse traveling privately was able to lend a hand.

The study team had one primary recommendation. At present FAA-mandated medical kits aboard U.S. commercial craft are not required to contain anti-nausea medications like Zofran; the researchers suggest such a drug “might be considered for addition to the standard kit.”  The presence of such drugs are believed to be inconsistent among the carriers.

“We found a lower rate of flight diversion if that (medicine) is available and administered to the passengers,” Martin-Gill said.