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I Have Sickle Cell Trait: Is It Safe to Fly or Travel to the Mountains?

If you have sickle cell trait, you can fly and go to places with a high elevation. Here’s how to do it safely:

  • Flying by plane. Commercial planes have pressurized cabins, so flying is rarely a problem. Just drink plenty of water before and during the flight to stay hydrated.
  • Hiking, camping, or skiing in the mountains. Start slowly. Drink plenty of water. Stop and rest often. If you don’t feel well, go back down the mountain and rest until you feel better.
  • Visiting a high-elevation city. You can go to places high above sea level, like Denver, Colorado. Just stay hydrated and avoid extreme exercise. Moderate exercise is OK. But avoid starting any rigorous activity until you are back at a lower altitude.

If you plan to fly or spend time at a high place, ask your doctor for other ideas to help you stay safe.  Also, if you’re traveling with someone who has sickle cell disease, they may have different needs to keep safe. Make sure they talk to their doctor.

What happens to air at higher altitudes? At higher altitudes, air has less oxygen. When you breathe this “thinner air,” your body takes in less oxygen than normal. With less oxygen, some red blood cells may become sickled or C-shaped. This can lead to blood clots, poor blood flow to the spleen, or other problems.

Where else do I need to be careful? Going deep into the ocean, where the atmospheric pressure is high, may cause problems for some people with sickle cell trait. If you plan to scuba dive, check with your doctor to find out if it’s OK.

Reviewed by: Corinna L. Schultz, MD
Date Reviewed: May 2, 2023

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