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Free Content Commercial Air Travel and In-Flight Pulmonary Hypertension

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Smith TG, Chang RW, Robbins PA, Dorrington KL. Commercial air travel and in-flight pulmonary hypertension. Aviat Space Environ Med 2013; 84:65–7.

Background: It has recently been shown that commercial air travel triggers hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction and modestly increases pulmonary artery pressure in healthy passengers. There is large interindividual variation in hypoxic pulmonary vasoreactivity, and some passengers may be at risk of developing flight-induced pulmonary hypertension, with potentially dangerous consequences. This study sought to determine whether it is possible for a susceptible passenger to develop pulmonary hypertension in response to a routine commercial flight. Case Report: Using in-flight echocardiography, a passenger was studied during a 6-h commercial flight from London to Dubai. The passenger was generally well and frequently traveled by air, but had been diagnosed with Chuvash polycythemia, a genetic condition that is associated with increased hypoxic pulmonary vasoreactivity. Hematocrit had been normalized with regular venesection. During the flight, arterial oxygen saturation fell to a minimum of 96% and systolic pulmonary artery pressure (sPAP) rapidly increased into the pulmonary hypertensive range. The in-flight increase in sPAP was 50%, reaching a peak of 45 mmHg. Discussion: This study has established that an asymptomatic but susceptible passenger can rapidly develop in-flight pulmonary hypertension even during a medium-haul flight. Prospective passengers at risk from such responses, including those who have cardiopulmonary disease or increased hypoxic pulmonary vasoreactivity, could benefit from preflight evaluation with a hypoxia altitude simulation test combined with simultaneous echocardiography (HAST-echo). The use of in-flight supplementary oxygen should be considered for susceptible individuals, including all patients diagnosed with Chuvash polycythemia.

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Keywords: Chuvash polycythemia; aircraft cabin hypoxia; hypoxia altitude simulation test; hypoxic challenge test; hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction

Document Type: Case Report

Publication date: January 1, 2013

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