Flying somewhere this summer? Great! A new study, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, says the odds of having an in-flight medical emergency are rare. (“Outcomes of Medical Emergencies on Commercial Airline Flights,” New England Journal of Medicine, May 30, 3013.)
According to the study, 2.75 billion passengers fly worldwide every year. The authors of the study analyzed records from all calls to a medical communications center from five large domestic and international airlines, which together represent about 10% of global flight passengers. After analyzing the data from more than 7 million flights, they categorized the number and the type of medical emergencies as well as their outcomes (whether or not the passenger had to go to the hospital after landing, whether they were admitted, etc.).
The study shows good news. Medical emergencies are rare, occurring on only 1 out of every 604 flights, affecting only 16 out of every 1 million passengers. According to the authors, “the most common medical problems were syncope [fainting] or presyncope (37.4%), respiratory symptoms (12.1%), and nausea or vomiting (9.5%).”
Allergic reactions were about half-way down the list, lower than cardiac symptoms and seizures. Allergic reactions accounted for only 2.2% of the medical emergencies – that’s just 2.2% of the 16 out of a million passengers. So out of the estimated 744 million airline passengers analyzed during the study period, there were a total of 11,920 medical emergencies reported, and only 265 of them were an allergic reaction. (It doesn’t break down “allergic reactions” into causes, so we don’t know how many were caused by food allergies, environmental allergies, or other.)
And of those 265 allergic reactions, only 12 required the aircraft to be diverted, 40 required transport to a hospital, and only 8 were actually admitted to the hospital. Here’s the best part: there were zero (0) deaths caused by an allergic reaction on the plane.
Remember, that’s out of 744 MILLION total passengers studied during that time frame.
So… airplanes are scary. Peanuts on airplanes are even scarier. But if you consider how many people with food allergies fly every year (and we’re one of those families), these numbers were actually really surprising to me – I thought they would be a lot higher. I actually have an adult friend who had a food allergy reaction on a plane once, so I know it happens. But I’m surprised at how seldom it happens, according to this study. (And my friend knew nuts didn’t agree with her, but had never had a serious reaction before the airplane incident, so she wasn’t as prepared as she might have been had she known.)
What I would love to see now is a study that is more specific to food allergic passengers. I'd like to see how many food-allergic people have flown on airplanes during a particular time period, and then see the percentage of THOSE people who had reactions on airplanes. That would really show us some concrete information. So if there are any researchers out there looking for a good topic... have I got an idea for you!
Please understand, I’m not trivializing the risks of food allergies on airplanes. The risk is DEFINITELY still there. Here is a story of a woman who is severely allergic to peanut allergy who reacts to airborne particles (which may be more severe than some allergic individuals), and her bad reaction on a recent United flight: "Peanut Allergy Causes Emergency Landing, Airline Sued," USAToday.com. As we plan our vacations, we need to remember to be vigilant – take HandiWipes to wipe down the seat tray, seat belt, and arm rests; notify the flight attendant of your allergies (especially if you are traveling alone); keep your antihistamine and epinephrine auto-injectors handy; and pack your own food or snacks for the flight if at all possible.
By staying vigilant and being careful, we can reduce those numbers of medical emergencies even more.
And, if the unthinkable happens and you DO suffer an allergic reaction on the plane, there’s more good news. The FAA mandates that every commercial airline keep an emergency medical kit onboard, and epinephrine is a required medication in that kit. In addition, the study also showed that when the flight attendants asked for medical help over the PA system, physicians were on board 48% of the time, and professional nurses or emergency medical technicians (EMTs) were on board another 25% of the time. So chances are very good that there will be professional medical help on your flight should you need it.
So if travel is in your future, plan ahead and stay vigilant, but rest a little easier knowing that the odds appear to be good that you’ll have a great time.