If you have COPD, or know someone who does, you know that oxygen support is likely needed for at least some daily activities. And that means a portable unit—which isn’t exactly a perfect travel buddy. But that doesn’t mean it should hold you back either.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, actually covers a variety of other lung diseases in the same category, including emphysema, asthma, and chronic bronchitis. Its hallmark is an inability to breathe alongside frequent coughing, wheezing, and chest pain or tightness. But it doesn’t have to be debilitating.
“Travel is very possible for people with COPD in many different stages,” says Bill Clark, the senior director of community engagement at the COPD Foundation. “It isn’t particularly good for people who are full oxygen users, but for everyone else, it’s possible. You just have to plan—and plan well ahead.”
Here’s how to travel with COPD on major types of transportation.
Flying as a COPD patient is complicated, but definitely doable. Each stage of your journey will have different requirements.
Before the flight
The first step for flying with COPD is to contact the airline for a required form. This documentation must be signed by your doctor and filled out prior to your trip, so leave plenty of time for this. You’ll need to detail your prescribed liter flow, when you need oxygen for the trip (during takeoff and landing, or throughout the flight), and what unit you plan on using. You’ll also need to make sure you have enough battery capacity for the flight.
“You need to have 150% battery capacity,” Clark says. “That means enough for your trip, plus 50% more to account for delays.”
At the airport
Even if you aren’t checking luggage, you’ll need to visit the check-in counter before going through security. They’ll require you to confirm your type of oxygen concentrator (the machine that delivers oxygen) and verify you have enough of a battery supply for the trip.
At security, be prepared to have your concentrator checked for bomb residue. If you can’t take your oxygen off long enough to get through security, you’ll get a special screening and pat-down, so be sure to get to the airport with plenty of time before your flight.
And remember to always ask for wheelchair assistance. You’ll get through security quicker and won’t tire out trying to get to your gate—which would mean you’d have to turn your oxygen up. Ask for it at your destination, as well, to take you to your next gate or to baggage claim.
Boarding and flying
Inform the crew you need extra time so you can board early—whether or not you’re using oxygen, Clark says. That way you won’t struggle being in a crowd or waiting to get settled in your seat.
On the plane, you’ll generally be required to have a window seat to allow for oxygen tubing (make sure you’ve called ahead to let the airline know you need it).
“Oxygen cords or tubing become a hazard if you have to evacuate the plane,” Clark explains. “If you were in an aisle seat, other people would be tripping over your hose trying to get out.”
Monitor the saturation of oxygen in your red blood cells throughout the flight. You can do this with a pulse oximeter, a portable device that attaches to your finger. The pressurized cabin on a plane may make it difficult to breathe—meaning you may need to increase your oxygen flow.
You might also want to try and limit your fluid intake on the plane as much as possible, because as Clark notes, “going to the bathroom on a plane when you’re on oxygen is hell on wheels.”
Ostensibly, train travel with COPD is the easiest method of getting from point A to point B. It’s important to call the train company to see if they have specific oxygen rules, and you might want to check if there are outlets on the train to run your oxygen concentrator on the charger, but otherwise you’re good to go. Enjoy the rails!
Cruise boats and ships can be tricky for COPD patients. Depending on the stage of your COPD, not only will you need a portable oxygen unit to walk around the ship, but you’ll also need a home unit to sleep at night. Before you leave, Clark says, contact the cruise company to see if you’ll be able to plug in your oxygen, if help is available to get your oxygen aboard the ship and to your room, and if the ship has emergency supplies should your oxygen equipment fail.
“Right now with portable concentrators, the most any of them put out is three liters continuous,” Clark said. “If you’re above that level, it’s really not safe. You couldn’t actually walk around the boat or leave your room. You’d have to be tethered to a home machine or carry a large portable tank behind you, but most cruise carriers don’t allow compressed oxygen tanks because of bomb risks.” So if you’re a high-flow patient, cruises probably aren’t the best travel option for you.
If you’re a patient traveling with COPD, the biggest risk isn’t how you travel or where you’re going—it’s the people you travel alongside. Make sure you take precautions to keep away from any germs that might be lingering about in recirculated air, surfaces, or coughing people nearby, particularly on planes.
“It’s advisable to wear a mask while you’re on the plane and in the terminal,” Clark says. “You should wipe down the seat and the tray with some type of cleaning pad. They’re very germy.”
Regardless of the type of travel, though, Clark says the most important thing you can do before your trip is to plan ahead for your oxygen needs and check with your doctor to make sure it’s safe to go.