How Soon After Surgery Can I Fly?

Every patient recovering from surgery has a constant worry about the period required before they can go back to their regular routine. One of them might be: “How long after surgery can I fly?”

Medical science answers the question as follows: It depends on the surgery one has undergone and the regulations of the airline about flying after surgery. Major surgeries also require prior permission from a surgeon or a GP (General Practitioner).

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has a rough guideline. According to their regulations, minimally invasive cardiac surgeries require at least 2 days, simple abdominal surgery 5 days (10 if complicated), chest or bypass surgery 10 days, simple cataract or corneal laser surgery 1 day (7 if more complicated) and colonoscopy 1 day after surgery.

Retinal detachment surgery needs 2-6 weeks, craniotomy 6 weeks, brain biopsy 4 weeks and 1-2 days after procedures involving application of a plaster cast.

Lung resections and joint replacements demand at least 3 months before flying because the head and lungs are most sensitive to pressure changes during healing. Most flights are pressurised to about 8,000 feet, and this is a substantial change in atmospheric pressure that can badly disturb a head or abdominal surgery region.

Recent operations, particularly on the lower limbs, render patients at high risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), whereby clotting occurs in the deep veins, usually in the legs. A previous incidence of DVT or clotting, a family history of DVT, obesity and pregnancy are also high-risk factors for DVT. Patients exposed to these risk factors require consultation with a GP before flying, because air travel is associated with relative immobility, and that causes the circulation of blood to slow down. As a result, small clots mass into larger ones. Therefore, while on board, a patient is recommended to drink lots of water – as hydration prevents thrombosis – and keep moving around in the plane to reduce the risk.

Cardiac patients with abnormalities in heart rhythms are treated with pacemakers or ICDs (Implantable Cardiac Defibrillators). These devices impose no restrictions on the patient flying unless he/she is medically stable.

Infection is also another big risk. Airplanes are infamously referred to as a ‘flying petri dishes’ due to the closed environment. And in many cases, ill people on board do not take safety measures to prevent infections very seriously. A patient with a recent surgery is even more at risk because of the tremendous amount of stress the body has to go through during the operation.

Travel insurance policies, if any, should be cautiously checked. It’s important that the company is informed about recent surgery since it can raise the cost of the travel insurance.

In a nutshell, a patient needs to take the following precautions before and during the flight:

  • Mild exercise before and in-between flights
  • Take aspirin or other anticoagulants (to dissolve clots if present) as prescribed
  • Drink lots of water to keep yourself hydrated
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and sugary drinks (as they interfere with immunity)
  • Use compression stockings (to prevent thrombosis)
  • Choose a bulkhead seat for more leg room and easy access to your medicines
  • Pick a seat near or over the wing of the plane (here the ride is smoothest)
  • Try to book an early morning flight (lesser air turbulence thus smoother flight)
  • Bring with you lots of sanitising wipes

In the end, the question shouldn’t only be about how soon after surgery can you fly but everything else that encompasses air travel from insurance, medication to minimising the risk of infection.

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