Flying While Pregnant
One of the most frequent questions that we are asked at The Pregnant Traveler is in regard to pregnancy and air travel. Women ask about early pregnancy and flying, how long you can fly when pregnant, long haul flights when pregnant, if you can fly in the first trimester or just about anything to do with pregnancy and air travel.
Really, the trip should begin before you go to the airport. Before any pregnant air travel you need to know that the pregnancy is healthy. At least have an ultrasound to make sure that it is not a tubal pregnancy or otherwise abnormal. Under normal conditions about one in eight pregnancies ends in a miscarriage and you would not want this to happen when traveling.
When booking, check the duration of the flight and perhaps even the availability of medical care at your destination, especially when traveling internationally. It is also wise to buy trip cancellation insurance when you buy your ticket. By the time the trip comes around you may be feeling too sick or uncomfortable to travel.
Airport Scanners & Pregnancy
Once you get to the airport, the question often comes up about the scanners used in security checks.
There are basically three types of scanners. The hand-held types and some walk-through types use a magnetic field to detect metals. The magnet in the scanner is about one tenth the strength of a refrigerator magnet.
Other walk-through scanners use either radio waves or very low dose x-rays.
The older scanners, called backscatter scanners, still in use in some countries, are the ones that use the very low dose x-rays. Radiation doses can be expressed in millisieverts (mSv). It takes about 500 mSv to harm a developing baby. By comparison, backscatter scanners produce a radiation exposure of less than 0.001 mSv. This type of scanner has been largely replaced by radio wave types because of privacy concerns, not safety concerns.
The newer scanners bounce low dose radio waves to detect hidden objects. Radio waves are a form of electromagnetic energy similar to light but with much less energy. These, therefore, would be as safe as walking in the sunlight.
Solar Radiation While Pregnant
Similar to sunlight, another type of radiation that sometimes causes concern is solar radiation. This occurs even when you are on the ground. But in an airplane, with less atmosphere to block it, it can be of more concern.
To quantify the amount of radiation, a chest x-ray usually exposes someone to 0.02 mSv of radiation. National and international radiation safety organizations recommend a limit of 1 mSv per year for the general public and the same amount for a 40 week pregnancy. Thus, the only people who might possibly need to worry about this exposure are women such as flight attendants or pilots. A tool to estimate exposure to cosmic radiation from a specific flight is available at (http://jag.cami.jccbi.gov/cariprofile.asp).
How Air Pressure Affects Your Pregnancy
One fact that might be of concern in some women is that even though the cabin of an airplane is pressurized, it is not pressurized to normal ground level, but rather to the equivalent of 5000 – 8000 feet altitude. The resulting slight decrease in oxygen level should not be a problem during a normal pregnancy, but if the pregnancy is complicated by severe anemia or a small-for-dates baby, then it might be worth considering.
Do not forget the occasional air turbulence. In the later stages of pregnancy, one may already have a diminished sense of balance and be prone to falls, so if walking about the airplane, make sure to hold on to something. And while sitting, keep your seatbelt fastened below the belly bulge.
Blood Clots & Hydration
A more worrisome danger is the risk of blood clots in your legs, or deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Because of changes that occur in the blood stream, a pregnant woman is about five times more likely to get blood clots than when she is not pregnant. These clots can break loose and go to the lungs, where they can cause severe circulatory problems and even death. Traveling by airplane adds two additional factors – immobility and dehydration due to the dry air. Some often recommended preventive measures, like aspirin or compression stockings, have not been found to be effective in combating this. The best prevention is to keep hydrated and keep moving whenever you can. For patients who already have a history of blood clots, many physicians recommend a pre-flight shot of an anticoagulant such as heparin or enoxaparin.
Another reason to keep hydrated is that too much dehydration can lead to Braxton-Hicks contractions and thus a worry about the onset of labor. If you do think you are in labor at any time during a flight, notify the flight crew earlier rather than later.
Infectious Diseases & Blood Sugar
One other concern when pregnant and traveling is the exposure to infectious diseases. Sitting in crowded waiting areas and the confined space of an airplane can put you in close proximity to someone with an infection. The air on an airplane is probably cleaner than in most homes, but it still would be wise to get your annual flu shot and try not to sit next to someone with an obvious respiratory infection. Do not be hesitant to ask for a seat change if necessary.
Finally, it is a good idea to eat frequent snacks or small meals to prevent both nausea and low blood sugar. Fainting on an airplane can alarm everyone around you. Try to avoid carbonated drinks or gas-producing foods on an airborne pregnancy because gas in your intestines tends to expand during flight and be quite uncomfortable.
We hope this article calms some of your fears and helps you prevent concerns you may not have even thought of.
Safe travels… until next time!
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