Being Ill on An Airplane

In 2010 there were 19,000 medical cases on board airlines, 442 were serious enough to divert the plane and 94 people died on board a plane.

On a US Airways flight a passenger had a nose bleed. The flight attendant didn’t do the usual call for the doctor, and instead sought to manage t his herself. As a result, the plane which was on the runway was turned around to the terminal, the passenger was given the wrong information by the flight attendant (not a medical person) and there was blood on the seat. This meant the flight was delayed, the passenger aggravated a bleed that could have been easily stopped, the passenger went to an ER, and didn’t make their destination. Doctors are always ready to lend a hand – a flight attendant is not medically trained nor should they make a medical decision. 

As a frequent flier I have been called on a number of times to assist a passenger, or crew members, who became ill on board a plane. Only one time did the flight have to be delayed because of a passenger who became ill. Being on an airplane with limited equipment, and medications, puts passengers at risk.

Here are a few recommendations for your safe travel: if you are ill, don’t travel. The altitude and confined space will only make things worse. In addition, if you have a virus, you will easily pass it on, and that isn’t a great thing to do for your fellow passengers. There is nothing worse than being ill on an airplane at 35,000 feet.

Do keep a list of your regular medications, and bring some of those medications with you on the flight- even if they are medicines you only need periodically.

water dehydration travelDo drink a lot of water on the plane. Most of the patients I take care of are mildly dehydrated, and the cabin pressurization, dry air of the plane, will make symptoms worse. Get up and walk a lot on the plane, especially with longer plane trips. If you drink enough water you will walk a lot.

Last year I was asked to attend to six different patients on board an airplane. To this day I have no idea how any of the people/passengers did – I gave all of them my business card. The airline crew is always happy, often taking my name, even my frequent flier number, but it has been six years since an airline sent me a note of thanks for taking care of their passengers (in 2010 five on US Airlines, one on Alaska Airlines). One flight attendant was so happy after I assisted a man who apparently had a heart attack that she gave me two bottles of wine—I returned them to her, but appreciated the gesture.

New stats for 2011-2012 – on planes saw over 19 passengers with illness. All thanked me, all took my card, every flight attendant took my personal information  – no follow up from the passengers or the airline. Even a simple email thanking would be nice – its all we ask.

My father became ill on board an airplane, there was a very nice Physicians Assistant who called me to talk to me about it after. I made certain to get his name and send him a thank you card with a gift certificate, and follow up with him about how my father is doing well, and appreciated the care he received.

If you do become ill, and are tended to by a physician, even if it is for dehydration – take their card and send them a follow up note and a thank you. We don’t expect or want payment for our services, but we always like knowing how things turn out and how people are doing.  A simple thank you is enough.

Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and received his MD. Dr. Simpson, then became a renowned weight loss surgeon, and a leading advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he advocates teaching people to improve their health through their food. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcom Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit


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