Objective: The reduced pressure in aircraft cabins may cause severe hypoxemia and respiratory distress in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The primary objective of this study was to determine the prevalence of in-flight symptoms in COPD patients and non-COPD subjects, and evaluate associations between these symptoms and pre-flight variables.
Methods: In a cross-sectional study of 391 COPD patients and 184 non-COPD subjects, we recorded lung function, blood gas values, exercise capacity, air travel habits and in-flight symptoms.
Results: Fifty-four percent of the COPD patients had travelled by air the last two years. Hypoxia-related symptoms during air travel were experienced in 25% of the COPD patients and 9% of the non-COPD subjects (p < 0.001). After adjusting for smoking status, age and gender, the odds ratio for COPD patients to experience dyspnea or air hunger was 6.6 (95% CI 2.5-17.3, p < 0.001) compared to non-COPD subjects. In the COPD patients, in-flight dyspnea or air hunger was strongly associated with pre-flight score on the Medical Research Council (MRC) Dyspnea scale (p < 0.001).
Conclusion: COPD patients had significantly increased risk of in-flight dyspnea or air hunger compared to non-COPD subjects. In COPD patients these symptoms were strongly associated with pre-flight MRC Dyspnea score.
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