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NLM Director’s Comments Transcript
Inflight Medical Emergencies are Common; Death is Rare: 07/01/2013

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Greetings from the National Library of Medicine and

Regards to all our listeners!

I'm Rob Logan, Ph.D. senior staff National Library of Medicine for Donald Lindberg, M.D, the Director of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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In-flight medical emergencies are common but deaths and diverted planes are rare, suggests an informative study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The findings (provided by a University of Pittsburgh center that health care providers can contact during an in-flight medical crisis) note 36 deaths followed a medical emergency onboard a commercial airplane between 2008-2010. Since the authors estimate there are 44,000 in-flight medical emergencies worldwide annually, the likelihood of death is low. One of the study’s lead authors told Reuters Health (and we quote): ‘We found it’s very rare for someone to die on board an aircraft’ (end of quote).

The study found fainting is the most common in-flight medical emergency followed by respiratory problems and nausea or vomiting. Passengers who fainted accounted for about 37 percent of all flight emergencies during the study’s three-year time frame. Respiratory problems accounted for about 12 percent of in-flight medical emergencies and nausea and vomiting occurred for 10 percent of emergencies.

Interestingly, while heart problems accounted for about eight percent of in-flight emergencies, 31 of the reported 36 overall deaths were from cardiac arrest.  

The study’s eight authors add planes were diverted because of in-flight medical emergencies only in seven percent of all reported cases.

The authors note their research is the most comprehensive to date because this is the first study based on actual in-flight medical emergencies. However, the authors (some of whom are from the University of Pittsburgh’s medical advice center) explain it assists five airlines, which serve 10 percent of all global air traffic. Hence, the study’s statistics are based on a sample — and some of the findings represent statistical projections.

One of the study’s authors also told Reuters Health that airplane passengers might prevent fainting by drinking water, or remaining hydrated during a flight.

In addition, the study’s authors encourage medical professionals to serve as volunteers when medical emergencies occur — and to identify themselves (and specify their level of training) to flight crews.

The study’s authors conclude (and we quote): ‘Medical emergencies during commercial airline travel, although rare when considered on a per-passenger basis, occur daily; traveling physicians and other health care providers are often called on to aid ill passengers’ (end of quote).

However, the authors add (and we quote): ‘Most in-flight medical emergencies are self-limiting or are effectively evaluated and treated without disruption of the planned route of flight. Serious illness is infrequent, and death is rare’ (end of quote).’s traveler’s health health topic page provides background information about air travel, including helpful videos about deep vein thrombosis and avoiding jet lag (which are available in the ‘videos’ section). A primer on air travel health tips (provided by the American Academy of Family Physicians) is available in the ‘prevention/screening’ section of’s traveler’s health health topic page.’s traveler’s health health topic page also contains links to the latest pertinent journal research articles, which are available in the ‘journal articles’ section. Links to related clinical trials that may be occurring in your area are available in the ‘clinical trials’ section. From the traveler’s health health topic page, you can sign up to receive email updates with links to new information as it becomes available on MedlinePlus.

In addition,’s traveler’s health health topic page is helpful regardless of the type of transportation you encounter during a voyage. The health topic page contains extensive information to help you prevent illness and prepare for international travel. There are additional tips to help summer travelers with disabilities, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions enjoy a healthier journey. 

To find’s traveler’s health health topic page, just type ‘traveler’s health’ in the search box at the top of’s home page. Then, click on ‘traveler’s health (National Library of Medicine).’ also has health topic pages devoted to first aid, as well as motion sickness.

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