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Air Travel Safe for Most Pregnant Women

September 21, 2009

Washington, DC -- As long as pregnant women don't have any obstetric or other medical complications, they can follow the same precautions for air travel as the general population and fly safely, according to a revised Committee Opinion released today by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and published in the October issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

"Since 2001, when ACOG first issued a Committee Opinion on pregnancy and air travel, a number of observational studies have been published confirming that air travel is generally safe during an uncomplicated pregnancy," said William H. Barth, Jr, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and chair of ACOG's Committee on Obstetric Practice. "These new studies have made our previous recommendations stronger and more detailed." The recent studies noted by Dr. Barth have shown no increase in adverse pregnancy outcomes among occasional air travelers.

The updated Committee Opinion also addresses concerns about exposure to cosmic radiation during air travel. Even the longest intercontinental flights will expose passengers to no more than 15% of the recommended limit of cosmic radiation exposure set by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements and the International Commission on Radiological Protection. However, it is possible that flight crew or frequent flyers may exceed the recommended exposure limit. The Federal Aviation Administration provides a website tool at jag.cami.jccbi.gov/cariprofile.asp to help estimate exposure to cosmic radiation from specific flights.

"Questions from our patients about air travel during pregnancy are some of the most common during obstetric visits," Dr. Barth said. "When a patient with an uncomplicated pregnancy asks about occasional flying, we should feel comfortable saying, 'It's safe.'"

All airline passengers, including pregnant women, can help minimize the risk of blood clots, especially on long flights, by wearing support stockings, moving their legs periodically, avoiding restrictive clothing, getting out of their seat and walking for a few minutes, and staying hydrated. Pregnant women should use their seatbelts continuously while seated to prevent the potential risk of trauma to the body in the event of sudden severe air turbulence. ACOG also says pregnant women may want to avoid gas-producing foods or drinks (such as carbonated soda) before a flight because gas trapped in the stomach expands as altitude increases, which can cause discomfort. Pregnant women who are experiencing pregnancy-related nausea may want to take a preventive anti-nausea medication before boarding the airplane.

According to ACOG, pregnant women who have medical or obstetric conditions that may be worsened by air travel or that could require emergency care should not fly at any time during their pregnancy. Women should check with their airline for specific requirements regarding pregnant women. Most commercial airlines allow pregnant women to fly up to 36 weeks of gestation, but restrictions may vary with each carrier.

Committee Opinion #443, "Air Travel During Pregnancy," is published in the October 2009 issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) is the nation's leading group of physicians providing health care for women. As a private, voluntary, nonprofit membership organization of approximately 56,000 members, ACOG: strongly advocates for quality health care for women; maintains the highest standards of clinical practice and continuing education of its members; promotes patient education; and increases awareness among its members and the public of the changing issues facing women's health care.