We all have our annoyances with airline travel, but if people have chronic breathing disorders, flying can actually be dangerous to their health. At high altitudes there is less oxygen in the air, even inside an airplane’s pressurized cabin. That can make breathing difficult for individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, cystic fibrosis or some cardiac conditions.
Fortunately, for those air travelers, Saint Barnabas Medical Center now offers a new form of testing to determine if supplemental oxygen is required. It’s called High Altitude Simulation Testing, or HAST.
When ordered by a primary care doctor or lung specialist, HAST can determine how much additional oxygen, if any, you may need when flying or traveling to high elevations.
Federal flight regulations require aircraft cabins to be pressurized to the equivalent of between 8,000 and 10,000 feet of altitude. (Meanwhile, the plane may actually be at 30,000 feet.) That means the amount of breathable air, including oxygen, is reduced compared with conditions at sea level. “The air’s oxygen content goes from 21 percent to 15 percent,” says Joanne Scasserra, pulmonary lab supervisor at Saint Barnabas. For passengers with impaired lung function, that decrease may cause chest pains, shortness of breath or other symptoms related to hypoxia, or lack of oxygen.
During the test, the patient is asked to breathe through a mask filled with air at 15 percent oxygen for about 20 minutes, while a clip on one finger measures blood oxygen level throughout the test. “We tell people to bring a book and act like they’re sitting in an airplane,” Scasserra says. If the oxygen level decreases to lower than 90 percent of normal saturation, a blood sample is drawn from the arm to more accurately check the actual oxygen level in the blood. Oxygen is then added to the mask until it is determined how much oxygen is needed to bring the level up to normal.
If supplemental oxygen is required, the doctor will coordinate with a home health care company to arrange the proper equipment, which is typically covered by insurance. “The patient should also check with his or her airline to make sure the apparatus is approved for that airline,” Scasserra says.
The test can also be ordered for patients who plan to spend time in high-elevation locations like the mountains of Colorado, she says. “We thought our community could benefit from having this testing available,” says Scasserra.