Heart failure doesn't have to mean travelling or flying are off-limits. In fact, taking a few precautions can make your next trip the best you've had.
Robert Obey explains why planning is the No. 1 priority when travelling with a heart condition.
As the world opens up and summer is here, I know it’s time to start thinking about holidays again. I've always been an avid traveller, but this time, that means travelling with heart failure.
It's normal to worry about travelling with a heart condition. The best advice I was given about travelling with heart failure can be summed up in four points:
1. Listen to your body
2. Use your common sense when it comes to your heart
3. Seek medical advice before travelling with heart failure
4. Plan every detail to accommodate your heart condition
In today's article, I'm going to walk you through all four. I hope you find it helpful!
1. Listen to your body
Your body will have ways of telling you whether an activity is suitable for someone with heart failure or another heart condition. Your body is a finely tuned machine. It has evolved to keep you functioning efficiently.
It can warn you when something isn't quite right. These warning signs are commonly known as symptoms, such as:
- Shortness of breath, even when inactive. That means your body isn't getting enough oxygen
- Swollen feet or ankles from a build-up of fluid
- Feeling tired or weak because your heart can't get enough blood and oxygen to your muscles.
If you're travelling with heart failure or heart problems, you need to put your body first, mind second. I know that missing out or making compromises can be disappointing. That said, you should never overrule your body's early warning system. It's saying something for a reason!
Related: Learning to Live with Heart Failure
2. Use your common sense
I used to enjoy walking long distances. These days, long-distance walking isn't suitable because heart failure brings on severe breathlessness and extreme fatigue.
Therefore, it makes no sense to book a walking holiday. I can, however, book a holiday where I can take short, leisurely walks.
I also struggle breathing in extreme heat or cold. Using my common sense, I realise there's no point in exacerbating my heart condition by travelling to a very hot or cold country. Not only won't I enjoy it, but it'll also be bad for my health.
For this reason, I choose to holiday in the UK where I know I can handle the milder temperatures. Extremes in weather conditions can put a strain on anyone’s heart, not just mine, so please talk to your GP before travelling to an exotic location with heart failure.
I know lots of us used to enjoy burning the candle at both ends on holiday - but is it really wise? Would it not be better to go somewhere closer to home and enjoy a relaxing break, tasty food and good company?
Travelling with a heart condition doesn't always mean it's not safe to fly. However, for me, staying close to home is my way of "using my common sense".
Of course, it's hard limiting yourself when you're on holiday. But, travelling at the expense of your heart health will ruin your trip entirely.
3. Seek advice from your medical team
Real talk: your medical team know what's best for you. You might not like the advice, but that doesn't mean it's the wrong advice.
Your team can advise on the types of travel suitable for you, such as:
- Length of flight
- Temperature conditions
- Activity level
- Altitude maximums (if you like climbing hills or mountains)
- Whether you can travel alone
- Avoiding specific stressors
Some GPs and specialists may advise against travelling with heart failure, especially long-haul flights.
If this is you, see what alternatives your team can suggest. Perhaps a cruise would be safer or taking a short flight to countries nearer to home?
Your team will also know what restrictions there are about taking medications abroad. Unfortunately, not all medicines are available in other countries, but your GP may offer you an alternative. Sometimes, a specific brand may not be available, but you can take the same medication under a generic name. Again, your team will have these details.
Your medical team can also issue any letters or certificates you need to travel in case of an emergency.
In short, they know what's best for you!
4. Plan every detail of your trip or holiday
The most important piece of advice is to plan every detail.
When you've finished planning, plan some more. Then, plan for what happens if your plans fail. People talk about having a Plan B, but I think there should be Plans C and D too!
It's a lot of organising, but it's the best way to make sure you have an enjoyable and safe holiday while travelling with a heart condition.
Related: The Fires of Hope – Life after a Heart Attack
Here are a few things to think about:
Travel insurance with a heart condition
Health and medical emergencies are the most important reasons to have travel insurance, as emergency treatment in another country can be very expensive.
Never, ever book a holiday without travel insurance. This also applies to holidaying in your own country too. Although living in the UK means my medical expenses are covered, travel insurance protects me from:
- Lost, stolen, or damaged luggage
Both of these things can cause unnecessary stress, which can put a strain on the heart. I make sure I have insurance to cover both rather than risk ill-health from something easily prevented.
I know holiday insurance is expensive when you're travelling with heart failure.
Most, if not all, heart conditions are excluded as pre-existing conditions on standard holiday insurance.
Insurers may also ask about:
- Any medication you take
- Whether you've had a device fitted (like a pacemaker)
- Whether you've had a medical procedure, like heart surgery or a stent
Find a specialist medical insurer that'll cover your existing and linked conditions.
Yes, you'll pay more. But, if something goes wrong, you'll be glad that you paid the extra.
What price can you put on peace of mind?
Packing for your holidays
Have you packed appropriate clothing, footwear and toiletries for the destination?
Have you got enough medication for the whole trip, including if you're delayed? Have you got permission to carry certain medications?
You’re allowed to carry medication in your hand luggage in case your bag goes missing. What backup measures have you taken if your luggage is stolen, lost or damaged at the airport?
Can you physically carry the weight of your bags? If not, how are you going to transport them? Remember, if you're straining to carry your bags, your heart will be strained too!
Holiday transport: Can you fly with heart failure?
According to British Cardiovascular Society guidelines, most people with heart conditions, including heart failure, can fly without further risking their health.
However, you should always check with your GP or medical team before booking a flight. This is particularly vital if you've recently had a heart attack, had heart surgery or spent an extended time in the hospital. Some GPs may advise against flying with a heart condition because they have your safety in mind.
If you're safe to fly with heart failure or another condition, you need to work out the logistics of the journey. Will you require mobility assistance when you get to the airport? Will you need supplemental oxygen? Do you have a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD)? If so, it's best to give the relevant airports and airlines as much notice as possible. The worst thing for you and your holiday is added stress!
You'll also need to keep a close eye on the time zones of both countries and any stopovers. Time zones can make it difficult to keep track of what medication you've taken and when. On the day of travel, make sure you take them as normal unless told otherwise by a medical professional. If the time zones threaten to trip up your pattern, it may be wise to set alarms on your phone or watch. It's always better to be safe than sorry.
You'll also need to think about transfers from the airport to the hotel. Relying on public transport may not be the best idea – so check on your destination. I would always book a transfer from a reputable company. These professional transfers can keep an eye on delays, cancellations, etc., so they won't leave you in the lurch if you arrive late.
If you're not planning on flying, you still need to plan your journey properly. If you're travelling by car, how many breaks will you need? Take a map or go online, and mark some likely service stations or rest stops for your trip.
Plus, you need to take into consideration other practical matters. What happens if you break down? Are you a member of a breakdown organisation? Did you remember to renew it? How long do they take to reach you, on average? Did you pack enough food, drink and medications that are easily accessible?
The holiday destination matters: don’t overdo it!
Choosing the right destination at the planning stage can make or break your holiday.
How far away is it from the airport? A long car journey after a long flight will put unnecessary strain on your health, even with reputable transfers.
And what about the general geography and ambience of your destination?
Is it hilly? How will you get around if you require mobility aids or have been told to not overdo it by your GP?
Is it noisy or quiet? How far is your accommodation from the main attractions in your destination?
Can you do everything you want to do at your destination or will you need to travel by car, bus, or boat?
If you want to relax, where will you be able to take time out?
This all may sound very fussy, but travelling with heart conditions take meticulous planning. As I keep saying - the last thing any of us need is more stress.
Find the right holiday accommodation to reduce strain
Your choice of accommodation is so, so important. For me, accommodation is a place to escape from the hustle and bustle of holiday destinations.
What type of accommodation are you staying in? Do you need to take any aids or equipment with you? Are there too many steps or stairs? Do they have lifts to other floors or wheelchair ramps?
Is your accommodation on a hill? If so, how will you get up and down the incline?
Have you got the contact details for emergencies? How far is the nearest hospital? And so on.
What holiday activities are suitable for heart conditions?
To be honest, it’s the attractions and activities which make the holiday! All the more reason to plan in advance which ones you’d like to visit or take part in.
What would you like to do? Is it suitable for people with heart conditions? If you do it, what toll could it take on you? How and where will you recover?
If you’re visiting an attraction, what access facilities are there? Can you hire mobility equipment? Has it got a lift to avoid stairs? Is it well ventilated?
Make sure you enjoy your holiday!
It sounds strange – planning to enjoy yourself. It's often overlooked, yet it can cause tensions.
What I mean by planning to enjoy yourself is:
- Set yourself limits. It's better to pace yourself than get swept up in holiday excitement and overdoing it.
- Plan to do nothing! Build in a period to do absolutely nothing other than relaxing and watch the world go by.
- Walk friends and family through your plan in advance. Tell them there'll be times when you want to sit out. Reassure them they have no reason to feel guilty about leaving you out. Sometimes, you can have just as much fun watching loved ones enjoying themselves.
- There is no reason to feel guilty about conserving energy. Use that energy to enjoy yourself with friends and family later!
Related: Making it Through a Crisis, One Day at a Time
If your condition is stable, there is no reason to stop travelling with heart failure or other heart conditions. After all, we know a relaxing holiday and change of scenery can do wonders for our mental health.
Related: How Heart Failure Affects My Mental Health
Between you and your medical team, you’ll know whether you’re healthy enough to travel. You may need to change the style of holiday to one more suitable to your abilities.
And finally, the best thing you can do to almost guarantee a successful holiday is to plan, plan, and plan some more!
You can remove so many risks before you set off. If you do, you'll not only have a piece of mind but a better chance of a fantastic, relaxing holiday. Just what all of us need!
NPS-IE-NP-00312 September 2021