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July 25th, 2011
08:38 AM ET

Is it OK to fly after a head injury?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Mondays, it's pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Shu.

Asked by Liz from Atlanta
My teammate and I collided during a ballgame last weekend, and I blacked out for a few seconds before being taken to the emergency room. They did a CT scan of my head, which was fine. I am still having some headaches but have plans to fly across the country this weekend. Should I cancel my trip?

Expert answer

Thanks for your question. While it's widely accepted that people should avoid strenuous physical and mental activities after a concussion, it's less clear whether flying should be avoided soon afterwards.

Although jets are pressurized so that the cabin environment resembles an altitude of around 8,000 feet, some people report that flying (possibly from the changes in pressure and resulting decrease in oxygen concentration) causes symptoms such as headache, fatigue and nausea.

In addition, extreme turbulence can aggravate headaches. If you do choose to fly this weekend, your doctor may recommend taking a medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to prevent headaches during the flight.

It's also a good idea to be well-rested (or maybe sleep on the plane) and to stay hydrated during the flight.

In addition, brain rest is recommended following a concussion, so reading, watching movies and playing video games - things you might normally do to pass the time on a plane - may make things worse. It can be uncomfortable enough to be in the cramped quarters of a plane, with or without having a headache.

Keep in mind that a cross-country flight could subject you to several hours of pain. Most people with simple concussions improve within about a week or two, so if you are worried about flying and have the flexibility to change your travel plans, it may be wise to do so.

I would be interested to hear from readers about their experiences with flying after having a concussion. Please submit your comments below.

Follow Dr. Shu on Twitter


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