Traveling with Sickle Cell Disease

For many people, traveling is an important way to relax and explore life. However, for people with sickle cell disease (SCD), traveling can be stressful. Certain aspects of travel, such as flying and weather changes, can trigger complications of SCD.
Talk to your doctor about your travel plans well in advance. They can advise you if you should get additional vaccinations or bring medicines with you. They can also help you prepare for the trip by suggesting ways to prevent complications while abroad.

Does travel increase the risk of sickle cell disease complications?

People with SCD do have a higher risk of experiencing health complications while traveling than people without SCD. There also seems to be a higher risk of experiencing complications while traveling than while at home.1

One study of about 150 travelers with SCD found that nearly 2 out of every 3 people experienced an acute complication while abroad. About 1 in 10 people required hospitalization while abroad.2

Does flying increase risk?

Flying in pressurized airplanes is usually safe for people with SCD. However, it is still a good idea to stay hydrated and perform leg exercises, including periodically walking through the cabin if you are able. The risk of experiencing an acute pain episode during air travel is about 10 percent for people with SCD.1,3

High altitudes can trigger complications of SCD. At mountain elevations, the risk for developing an acute pain crisis is nearly 40 percent. Spleen damage is also a common complication at high altitudes.1,4

Prolonged air travel is a common risk factor for venous thromboembolism (VTE). This is when a blood clot forms in the veins and travels to the lungs. Talk to your doctor about medicines and other techniques to prevent travel-associated VTE.1,5

Why does travel trigger acute pain episodes?

A common complication for travelers with SCD is an acute pain crisis. Even people who do not normally experience frequent acute pain episodes can develop one during travel. Many factors associated with travel can trigger an episode, including:1

  • Dehydration
  • Infection
  • High altitude
  • Weather changes

People with SCD have a higher risk of developing hypovolemia (low amount of circulating blood). This can be aggravated by travel because of heat exposure, lack of safe drinking water, and diarrheal illness. Red blood cells are more likely to sickle during hypovolemia and cause acute pain episodes.1,2

Does international travel increase infection risk?

People with SCD, especially children, have a higher risk for serious infections. They should now be vaccinated for infections that people with SCD can encounter in the United States. However, people with SCD are also vulnerable to other infections that are not common in the United States. Some of these infections include:1

  • Salmonella
  • Staphylococcus aureus (staph)
  • Malaria
  • Shigella

Talk to your doctor before you travel to receive any appropriate travel vaccinations. Also, talk to your doctor about ways to minimize the risk of infections. This may include avoiding drinking water unless it is from a sealed water bottle. It may also include bringing antimalarial drugs or other medicines with you.

How can I prepare for traveling?

Make sure you know how and where to get medical care while abroad. The Global Sickle Cell Disease Network (GSCDN) is a worldwide network of doctors and researchers. It provides information about the location and services of treatment centers around the world. Before traveling, families should know the closest center and what services are available.6

Discuss your travel plans with your doctor. They may refer you to a doctor who specializes in travel medicine. They can help you to:1

Here are some additional tips for traveling:7,8

  • Dress comfortably for the flight, and bring a sweater and warm socks in case the cabin is cold
  • Pack for every situation during travel (weather, cancellations, delays)
  • Check the weather before you go
  • Bring empty water bottles through security and have them filled up for the flight
  • Carry pain medicines on the plane
  • Tell a member of the flight crew so they know what to do if you need help
  • Purchase travel insurance in the event that a medical emergency that causes you to return home

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Written by: Matthew Zajac | Last reviewed: January 2021