Travelling abroad with a heart condition
A usefull travel guide and tips for travellers with heart conditions. Because health can’t keep you down.
The joy of travel is something that everyone should be able to experience. There’s something so liberating about being able to get away from everyday life to sunnier climes or a new destination, not to mention the anticipation of having a booked trip to look forward to.
Having a pre-existing heart condition shouldn’t mean you cannot enjoy time abroad, and if anything, a relaxing holiday could do you the world of good.
With that in mind, and to help you plan your holiday, we’ve put together the following guide to travelling abroad with a heart condition.
About heart disease and travelling with this condition
There are a wide range of conditions that fall under the wider term ‘heart conditions’. We classify a heart condition as any illness that affects the heart and/or cardiovascular system, which is the heart and blood vessels – arteries, veins and capillaries.
The British Heart Foundation (BHF) estimates that there are approximately seven million people living with a heart condition in the UK, split equally between men and women (bhf.org.uk). That’s a huge number of people who may wonder whether or not they can and should travel overseas due to their heart condition.
While any condition that has an effect on the heart is serious, with the right planning and preparation having a heart condition needn’t be a barrier to seeing the world. As long as your heart condition is under control and you feel well, there’s no reason why you cannot enjoy a relaxing and rejuvenating trip abroad.
To help you make your holiday the break away from it all that you need, we’ve put together the following guide to travelling abroad with a heart condition.
Things to consider when planning to travel with a heart condition
As we’ve already stated, if you have had a recent heart condition diagnosis, heart attack or heart surgery, we would advise postponing any plans to travel overseas until you feel well again. Although time away can be of great benefit to your health, travelling itself is unpredictable and can be stressful.
Below are 3 things to consider:
This will give you time to organise your journey plans, any medication you need to take and of course, travel insurance to cover your heart condition. Getting everything arranged ahead of time will mean your holiday is all the more relaxing when it comes around.
Choosing a holiday destination
There shouldn’t be many places you cannot go if you have a heart condition, but for some destinations, there are certain things you need to be aware of and precautions you will need to take. Talk to your doctor about where you are planning to go for professional travel advice tailored to your personal circumstances.
Generally speaking, extremes of warm or cold weather can affect your heart condition. Cold temperatures in particular can make the symptoms of a heart condition worse, so if you’re planning a trip somewhere cold, it’s vital that you stay warm. Pack plenty of warm clothes that you can layer, and make sure you have a hat, gloves and thick socks to keep your extremities protected from the cold. We recommend staying inside if it’s very cold, and the BHF advises an indoor temperature of at least 18 degrees for people with a heart condition.
Hot weather and/or too much sun can also aggravate a heart condition, particularly as it can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
If you’re off on a beach holiday or another warm destination
- drink plenty of water throughout the day
- try to stay out of direct sunlight between the hours of 11am and 3pm, when the sun is at its strongest.
- take care not to overdo it in terms of exercise or physical exertion
- cover up with a sunhat and light, loose-fitting clothing
- don’t forget the sun cream – one with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 and a high star rating.
If you have a heart condition, you will also need to consider altitude when choosing a holiday destination. A high altitude – over 2,000 metres above sea-level – means less oxygen in the air, which can result in headaches and breathlessness, and even angina, a feeling of pain and discomfort in your chest.
Don’t book a trip to a high-altitude location before speaking to your doctor first; they will be able to advise you whether or not it is too much of a risk with your heart condition.
On paper, the perfect holiday destination for people with a heart condition is somewhere:
- warm but not too hot
- as close to sea level as possible
- with a slow, relaxed pace of life
- that is not too remote
We recommend staying in accommodation that is close to amenities and is easy to get to. Of course, that’s not to say that anywhere else is off-limits, but if you need a little inspiration in terms of where to go, you won’t go far wrong choosing somewhere that fits this description!
Travel insurance for those with a heart condition
No matter where you decide to go on holiday, one thing you will definitely need is travel insurance that covers your heart condition. Treatment for a heart condition while abroad can be incredibly expensive, even more so as it is likely to be emergency treatment. Knowing you will be covered for these costs and, even more importantly, that your insurance company can source high-quality care for you is crucial to any trip overseas.
Many standard travel insurance companies will refuse to cover people who have a pre-existing heart condition, which is why you may find specialist travel insurance a better option. A provider of medical travel insurance, such as Free Spirit, can offer travel cover to people of any age with any health condition or disability , including heart conditions.
At Free Spirit, our specialist travel insurance for heart conditions is designed to cover a wide range of conditions, including cardiomyopathy, heart failure and vascular disease. In most cases, our friendly team of experts can let you know whether we can provide travel insurance for your heart condition by asking just a few simple health questions.
With travel insurance for your heart condition in place, not only can you get on with enjoying your holiday with full peace of mind, you will be covered for other eventualities too, such as extra care after hospitalisation, legal expenses and lost money and/or documentation.
Examples of questions you may be asked by your travel insurance provider
When applying for a specialist travel insurance quote to cover your heart condition, you will be asked a series of questions as part of a medical screening – typical questions include:
- Have you ever had a heart bypass, an angioplasty or a coronary stent?
- Have you ever been a smoker?
- How many (if any) heart attacks have you had?
- How long ago was your most recent heart attack?
- Are you waiting to see a specialist about new symptoms? Or awaiting any tests, results or surgery?
- Can you always walk 200yds on the flat with no chest pain or tightness or breathlessness?
- Have you had any episodes of chest pain (angina) since your last heart attack?
- Have you been advised to take medication for high blood pressure?
- Have you been advised to take medication to lower your cholesterol?
The questions will vary depending on what heart condition you have, and also whether you have any other medical conditions to declare.
Travelling by air with a heart condition
Most people who have a stable heart condition can travel by air with no problems, but some may need extra assistance during their journey. Having said that, if your heart condition is unpredictable or particularly severe, it is recommended that you delay travelling by air until your condition has improved.
Current guidelines from the British Cardiovascular Society (BCS), from their Fitness to Fly report, state that people with a stable heart condition should let their airline know about their condition ahead of travelling, and while airlines can legally deny the right to travel on the basis of a heart condition, this should be avoidable in all but the most exceptional circumstances. You can read the full Fitness to fly report on the BCS website.
If you’re unsure whether your heart condition could prevent you travelling safely by air, speak to your doctor before booking. If they are happy for you to fly, the next step is to speak to your airline and arrange any special assistance you may need. As the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) notes, most airlines have an expert and dedicated medical team who can advise you of any measures you need to have in place for your flights.
For example, you can pre-arrange help with your baggage or early boarding at the airport and/or a supply of oxygen for while you’re in the air. You will also need to make your airline aware beforehand if you need to take medication with you into the aeroplane cabin, especially if it is in liquid form of over 100ml. If you have angina, your glyceryl trinitrate (GTN) spray may fit this description. Make sure you have a letter about your medication from your doctor to take with you on the flight too.
What about deep vein thrombosis (DVT)?
As you may know, travelling by air (particularly on long-haul flights) can increase the risk of developing deep vein thrombosis(DVT), which is blood clots in the deep veins of the body, such as in the legs. Having a heart condition can raise the likelihood of DVT when travelling by air, so we advise wearing flight socks or stockings, also known as support stockings, throughout your flight. These tight stockings are designed to keep the blood in your legs circulating even when you are sitting still for long periods of time, but you can also help this by moving around the cabin regularly, drinking plenty of water and stretching out your legs and ankles from time to time when sitting in your seat.
If your doctor thinks you may be at significant risk of DVT when flying, they may give you an anticoagulant medicine beforehand, which will thin your blood and prevent it clotting. You may already be taking an anticoagulant, such as aspirin or warfarin, as part of your medication for your heart condition, and if so, you should continue taking it as usual. However, never start taking a medication to thin your blood without consulting your doctor first.
Things to remember at the airport
If you have a pacemaker or an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), you may worry about going through the security screening process at the airport. Today’s pacemakers and ICDs are designed to withstand external interference of this type so you should be fine, although the metal around your device may cause the alarm to sound.
Tell the airport security staff about your device and make sure you have either your device ID card or a letter from your doctor about your device with you. If you need to be scanned with a hand-held screening scanner, it should never be held directly over your device.
On a practical level, make sure to leave yourself plenty of time to get to the airport, get through security and board your flight – rushing is stressful and never the best start to a holiday. If you will be carrying your baggage yourself, invest in a suitcase on wheels so that you don’t have to strain yourself lifting it on and off a baggage trolley.
What to take with you when travelling
If you take medication for your heart condition, it’s best to take more than you will need with you on your trip and to split it across your bags, just in case one were to go missing. A cool bag for the flight is great if you need to keep your medication cold.
We’ve already mentioned having a letter from your doctor about your heart condition and any devices or medication you have or need. It can be worth having a copy of this in the language of the country you will be travelling to, as well as one in English. Also, make a list of your medication (brand names and generic names) and your dosages and keep it with you at all times, in the event that you lose any of them. You could also take a copy of your electrocardiogram (ECG) results with you.
As a precaution, take time to find and make a note of the numbers to call in case you need an ambulance or doctor while you are away.
Holiday activities with a heart condition
A peaceful holiday full of restful activities can be the best medicine for a heart condition, but we know you may not want to relax all the time. As long as an activity isn’t too strenuous, you should be able to take part in it as long as your heart condition is stable; ask your doctor if you’re unsure.
However, if you have a heart condition we recommend not using jacuzzis, saunas, steam rooms and other spa facilities that incorporate sudden and extreme changes in temperature, as this can put a strain on your heart. Again, check with your doctor for personalised advice.
Scuba diving is another activity you may not be able to do if you have a heart condition. Diving can cause your heart rate to slow and your blood pressure to drop, especially in deep water that’s colder than the temperature of the body. If you want to go scuba diving while you’re away, speak to your doctor; they may recommend a medical fitness test for you and decide whether or not you are fit to dive based on the results. You can find out more about diving with a heart condition on the Diving Medical Committee (UKSDMC) website.
Whatever you decide to do on your trip abroad, we hope this information has helped you plan your holiday.
We hope you have a safe, healthy and fantastic time away.