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Fainting after air travel is life-threatening

23rd October 2012

People who experience fainting after being on a plane should get themselves checked for pulmonary embolism (PE), according to a recent study.

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Study author Robert Rifenburg, a doctor at Resurrection Medical Center in Chicago, said that people who faint after air travel should regard their lives as being at risk.

He said if a person comes to the hospital to be evaluated for fainting, and he or she is ultimately diagnosed with a PE or another type of embolism, there was a statistically significant likelihood of a threat to their life.

For the study, the researchers reviewed their records of people who were seen after they arrived at Chicago's O'Hare airport, located near Rifenburg's place of work.

The records included 548 patients, whose average age was 68.

Though not all of the patients had recently flown in a plane, all of the patients were presented as emergencies, and admitted to the hospital immediately.

The researchers noted that other types of embolism, including one that is even more life-threatening than PE, can also cause post-flight fainting.

In particular, large, saddle emboli can cause sudden disruption of blood flow to the brain, leading to immediate death.

Although the researchers were unable to find a statistical link between embolisms and the length of time a person was travelling by air, the connection between post-flight fainting and PE remains statistically significant.

But while the study argues for fainting associated with air travel to be regarded as a key diagnostic indicator, fainting is not a common symptom of PE and various other emboli where air travel is not involved.

All of the patients turned out to have a PE that had never been previously diagnosed. Of the patients who complained that they had fainted, about half had also recently travelled in a plane. Only a small fraction of the patients who had not complained about fainting had been in a plane before their symptoms presented themselves.

Large saddle emboli, which are extremely life-threatening, were also much more common in the group that had experienced fainting.

Abnormal ECG findings, such as sinus tachycardia, were also found in that group. Rifenburg said that significant disruption of blood flow to the brain always carried risks for the human body, no matter what the cause.

This year, the American College of Chest Physicians published some new evidence based on clinical practice regarding the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and PE associated with long-distance air travel.

For long-distance flights, they found that several factors may increase a person's risk of developing DVT or PE.

People using oral contraceptives, or people who have had recent surgery or immobility, should be careful about taking long-distance flights, they concluded.

Rifenburg speculated that long-distance flights could put people in a particularly risky position, when it came to the risk of PE.


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