In this age of global marketing more and more women are finding it necessary to travel far from home when they are pregnant.  This may be due to work assignments, family emergencies or simply for pleasure. And much of the time this requires travel by air. Very often, however, concerned family members or even medical providers will advise against these trips because of concerns about the baby.

I would like to address those concerns here.

Let’s start with the five most common questions I am asked regarding air travel during pregnancy.

“Will the airport screening process hurt my baby?”

Modern airport scanners use electromagnetic rays (similar to light rays) to detect hidden objects. They no longer use x-rays. Some airports outside North America and Europe may still have “backscatter” x-ray machines but a person would have to be scanned over 500,000 times to reach a dose harmful to a developing baby. Read more about airport scanners and pregnancy.

“What about the sun’s radiation at high altitudes? Is that dangerous for my baby?”

The sun does emit types of solar radiation that are in some ways comparable to those used in medicine but the amount present at ground level is negligible. The concern arises when a person goes to high altitudes such as 30,000-40,000 feet in an airplane and there is less atmosphere to protect you. Solar radiation also increases during solar flares and as you approach the north or south pole. Some animal studies suggest that with prolonged exposure there might be enough radiation to cause brain damage and so scientists have calculated doses that might be harmful to a human fetus.  These doses could be potentially reached by airline pilots and flight attendants and so many airlines monitor their flying personnel.  Other than that, it is pretty much agreed that there is little potential for harm to the average traveler.

“How late in pregnancy will the airline let me fly?”

Various airlines have differing policies regarding pregnant travelers, but most will allow travel up to 36 weeks. For some the cutoff is 34 weeks. This is because they really don’t want women going into labor during the flight. When possible, it is a good idea to check with the airline before planning your trip. If you are obviously pregnant at the time of travel, it is wise to have a copy of your obstetrical record with you to show that you really do meet their rules.

“Do I need to worry about blood clots?”

During even a normal pregnancy you are more apt to develop blood clots, especially in your legs. The danger is that these might get loose and go to your lungs.  For most pregnant women this is not enough of an issue to worry about. Staying in one position for a long time, however (such as on a long plane flight), can allow blood to pool in your veins and form clots.  The best way to avoid this is to keep your legs moving, either by getting up and walking around or by doing leg exercises in your seat. Knee-high compression stockings are also a good idea.  Some people advise taking aspirin but this is not really effective for this type of clot. If you have had blood clots in the past and still need to take a long flight you and your medical provider may need to explore the possibility of taking a shot of some form of heparin before your flight.

“My feet swell when I fly. What can I do about that?”

There are several discomforts that are associated with flying when you are pregnant. Abdominal bloating is one of them and loose fitting clothing can help with that. As for your feet swelling, the same advice goes as for preventing blood clots. Wear compression stockings and keep your feet moving.  Taking water pills is NOT a good idea when you are pregnant.

There are some other concerns that arise during air travel that people are less conscious of. Exposure to infectious disease is one of them.  For this reason, among others, you should always get a flu shot when you are pregnant. Frequently washing your hands or using a hand sanitizer also provides good protection. You might even consider not shaking hands when you greet people, but smile and greet them verbally instead.

The higher you go in altitude the less oxygen there is in the air.  Even though planes may fly at altitudes over 30,000 feet, they are pressurized to the equivalent of 7000-8000 feet, so this matters very little during a normal pregnancy. It may be of concern, however, if the pregnancy is already complicated by conditions such as anemia, sickle cell disease or if the baby is already showing signs of inadequate growth.

For any complicated pregnancy, therefore, it is wise to check with a specialist before you travel, and we are always available for consultation.  Please contact us here.

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