Living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) doesn’t automatically mean you have to put your travel plans on hold. Like other chronic conditions, safe travel with COPD is possible with some pre-planning and thorough preparation.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of conditions causing damage or inflammation in your respiratory system that interferes with typical breathing. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the two main conditions associated with COPD.

Many people living with COPD have to be mindful of their daily activities. Respiratory tract damage can impair how well your lungs exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, leading to reduced oxygen in your bloodstream.

Certain activities can be extra fatiguing when you’re unable to breathe efficiently, and many people living with COPD require supplemental oxygen.

While it’s true that you might have to modify or eliminate certain daily activities after a COPD diagnosis, travel doesn’t always have to be something you give up.

Read on to learn tips on safe traveling with COPD.

Planning your tip in advance means more than just slotting attraction and restaurant visits into your schedule. When you live with COPD, planning your trip in advance often involves:

  • setting up a pre-trip doctor’s appointment
  • making a checklist for packing
  • obtaining comfort items, such as pillows, supports, or braces
  • contacting your airline, train station, or bus company about oxygen requirements
  • reviewing oxygen policies at hotels, restaurants, and event venues
  • reviewing accessible seating
  • talking with traveling companions about when and where it’s OK for them to smoke (if they do)
  • selecting times and places for travel breaks, if possible
  • gathering important medical and travel documents
  • filling medications
  • gathering spare parts for oxygen supplementation

Even though you can’t predict every travel scenario that might occur, planning your trip ahead of time helps reduce the chances you’ll have to make last-second decisions or face undue stress.

Your regular health insurance policy might not cover medical care if you’re out of state. Travel insurance is a way to make certain unexpected medical needs can be taken care of while you’re on your trip.

Several types of travel insurance exist, including:

  • Travel health insurance: Medical care coverage.
  • Medical evacuation insurance: Covers emergency transportation to a high quality hospital.
  • Trip cancellation or travel disruption insurance: Protects the financial investments you make if your trip is canceled.

Your current insurance provider may offer travel insurance, or a travel agent can help you set up a policy through a reputable provider.

A COPD action plan lays out the steps you should take when you’re not feeling well. It’s there so you and those around you don’t have to make critical decisions when you’re not in a state to communicate or think clearly.

You can make a COPD action plan with your doctor. It will consist of three zones: green, yellow, and red.

Each zone represents a level of symptom severity, with green as your baseline, typical function, and red as severe symptoms requiring emergency medical treatment.

In the COPD action plan, each zone will have a list of medications (and their doses), therapies, or actions appropriate for those symptoms.

Your plan should also include emergency contacts and brief descriptions of your medications and therapies.

Your doctor will be able to give you important insight about your personal travel risks and if you should consider taking supplemental oxygen even if you’re not typically on it.

If you’re traveling by air, for example, the altitude planes fly at means there’s less oxygen inside the cabin during flight. When you live with COPD, this decrease in oxygen can exacerbate challenges you already experience with blood oxygen levels.

Your doctor will conduct a high-altitude simulation test to determine your supplemental oxygen needs while flying.

Explicitly telling your doctor you plan to travel is important. According to a 2019 study, only 30.6% of polled pulmonologists talk about travel safety with every COPD patient they see.

If your doctor doesn’t know you have plans, they might not go over all the intricacies of traveling with COPD.

Oxygen is flammable and is subject to travel requirements. There may also be rules for supplemental oxygen in the places you stay or the public facilities you visit.

Finding out these details during your pre-planning can save you from stress later on.

  • Planes: Some planes may offer their own oxygen at an additional fee. Self-supplied oxygen must meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements, listed here.
  • Buses and trains: Buses and trains will have individual policies about oxygen devices.
  • Car: Secure your oxygen unit upright in the seat next to you or on the floor. Keep the temperature in the car cool, and don’t expose the unit to open flames (even cigarettes) or heat sources.
  • Cruises: Cruises also vary in oxygen policy, but most require 4–6 week notice if you’re traveling with oxygen and medical documentation.

You’ll want to have your medications readily accessible while you travel in case you need to take them. This means packing them in carry-on luggage or a bag you’ll have on your person.

Making sure you’ve refilled your prescriptions before you leave helps ensure you’ll have plenty on hand.

If you need medical assistance on your trip, having your medical records, or a summary of them, can help quickly inform doctors otherwise unfamiliar with your COPD history.

It’s also helpful to carry your oxygen prescription with you in the event you need to prove it was medically prescribed.

Where you sit when you travel commercially can matter with COPD. Getting up and walking a long distance to the bathroom, for example, might be difficult in lower oxygen situations.

A 2019 narrative review on traveling with COPD recommends selecting seating near bathrooms and other facilities you might need, as well as prioritizing a space where you can do intermittent leg exercises, such as an aisle seat.

COPD affects your breathing. If you’ve been diagnosed with this condition, lifestyle accommodations and adjustments are often necessary.

Living with COPD doesn’t mean you can’t consider traveling, however. Your doctor can let you know if travel is safe for you and how to stay safe on your trip.

Planning ahead helps take the uncertainty out of travel and sets you up for success, even if your COPD flares up.