How Soon Can I Fly After Surgery?

A recent surgery can affect your travel plans. The most important thing is to always discuss with your attending physician.

Your holiday is booked and there is an available slot for a wisdom tooth removal during the week before you are set to leave. Should you book the surgery or postpone it because of your upcoming flight?  

“The first thing to consider in all situations is the general health of the patient. The patient should have recovered from the surgery with a good level of health and there should be no signs of complications,” says Katariina Kainulainen, a Specialist in infectious diseases at The Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa (HUS).  

Recovery means that a patient should be able to eat and drink as usual, have a normal temperature, and the potential surgical wound should be healing well. If surgery involved bleeding, patients should also have healthy haemoglobin levels. In addition, the patient should be able to travel on a plane by himself or herself, without assistance.   

Bigger operations require a waiting period 

There is no reason why flying should be avoided after a small operation. According to Kainulainen, a wisdom tooth removal is considered to be a small operation as well as knee arthroscopy, for example.   

However, after more extensive surgeries, there are waiting periods that vary in length. For example, a patient will not recover immediately after a bowel surgery. Before flying, the patient’s stomach should be working normally, since often the intestine is temporarily numb after surgery and flying might be dangerous given this condition.

“For example, a regular waiting period after a routine appendectomy is 5 to 7 days, and after a cholecystectomy it is 5 to10 days, depending on how the surgical procedure was executed. After heart surgery, you have to wait for several weeks before flying,” Kainulainen says.  

Complications are a risk

Even though it is not common to have complications after surgery, it is important not to board a plane before you are in the clear of most common complications. Therefore, it is important to follow the waiting periods set by airlines.  
 
The most common problems are infections and bleeding around the area of the surgical wound. In a worst case scenario, the patient will get a high fever during the long flight and their overall health will decline to a dangerous level due to an infection. There is also a possibility that the surgical area will bleed if you fly too early, which can lead to a circulatory shock. Furthermore, pain from the surgery should be manageable before flying.  
 
The most important thing is to always talk to your attending doctor about flying. In addition, if you have one of following medical conditions, you must be in contact with the airline or travel company when booking your flight. In these cases, a Standard Medical Information Form for Air Travel must be filled out (MEDIF-form).   

  • Recent myocardial infarction 
  • Recent stroke 
  • Recent injuries 
  • Recent surgeries 
  • Coronary artery disease that is showing symptoms 
  • Chronic lung diseases  
  • Situations that require oxygen therapy  
  • Psychosis 
  • Anemia (chronic anemia, Hb less than 80, acute anemia, Hb less than 100) 

Flying is forbidden for patients with certain contagious diseases such as chickenpox and tuberculosis.  

Remember to get travel insurance! 

Infectious disease specialist Kainulainen also highlights the importance of a travel insurance – without it, you should not even travel to Europe. It is important to remember that travel insurance does have limitations regarding illnesses that were present before traveling.  

“If a complication that is a result of a previous surgery occurs while you are travelling, travel insurance will not generally cover anything else than acute first aid treatment at the most. If it is determined that the complication was to be expected before travelling, the insurance might not cover anything.”