US News: Airlines and allergies: can you safely fly the friendly skies?

Taking minimal precautions can help make flights safe.

By Michael Blaiss, M.D., Contributor Oct. 23, 2018, at 6:00 a.m. 

WITH MORE THAN 50 million Americans suffering from allergies every year, there is no doubt that a high percentage of flyers have allergies. Being 35,000 feet above the ground and going 500 mph in a metal tube is not the best place to have an allergic reaction. Not surprisingly, there have been numerous news articles related to people experiencing food and pet allergy reactions while flying. How can we keep ourselves safe from allergies during flight?

Food allergies, especially to peanuts, can be scary for people when flying. The good news is that by taking minimal precautions, you can fly safely. Inform the airline at least 24 hours before the flight to let them know what foods you are allergic to. Several U.S. airlines have completely stopped giving out peanuts. Southwest, American and United Airlines don't serve peanuts at all. Delta Air Lines says it won't serve peanuts or peanut products if a passenger informs the company that they have a peanut allergy. Just because a flight is peanut-free doesn't mean that other passengers won't bring and eat peanuts on the flight. You may want to ask the passengers near your seat to refrain from eating them.

Ideally, taking the first flight during the early morning may be safer, as planes are usually cleaned at the end of the day, reducing the amount of food crumbs present. A precaution you should take is to remove any traces of food on your seat and tray table by cleaning them with wet sanitary wipes. Several airlines, including Delta, JetBlue and Southwest, allow flyers with food allergies to board early to wipe down their seats and tray tables before departure. Carry all your medications to treat an allergic reaction with you, especially your epinephrine autoinjector. Don't put them in checked luggage or in the overhead bin. 

Even though peanut dust in the air has been thought to be a potential danger, there have been no incidences of life-threatening reactions to breathing in peanut dust. What if you smell peanuts? Smelling peanut odors will not cause an allergic reaction. For all snacks, read the label to confirm there is nothing in them that could trigger allergies. The safest approach is to pack your own meal before you leave or buy snacks at the airport that don't contain any of your food allergies to eat on the plane.

More and more pets are accompanying their owners when they fly. There has been a triple digit increase of service and emotional support animals on flights in recent years. What do you do if you are allergic to cats and/or dogs that might be on your flight? Many airlines limit the number of pets, but they can't limit the number of service animals on a flight. Even if there are no pets on the flight, you could still have symptoms from the animal dander from pets that have been on previous flights. 

Here are some helpful tips for flyers with cat and dog allergies: 

  • Make sure you've taken your allergy and asthma medications prior to flying and have them with you for the flight, not in the overhead bin or in checked luggage. This is especially important if you use a rescue asthma inhaler and/or epinephrine autoinjector.

  • Wipe your seat and tray tables with wet wipes to try to remove as much dander as possible.

  • Ask the flight attendants to move you to a seat as far away as possible from an animal that can trigger your allergies.

  • Avoid using the blankets and pillows on the airplane, as they may contain animal allergens.

  • If you might have a life-threatening reaction such as severe asthma or anaphylaxis to animals, call the airline 24 hours prior to flying to see if there will be any animals on your flight. If there are, see if the airline will get you on an alternate flight without pets or with a fewer number of pets.

By taking appropriate precautions and following up with your board-certified allergist to make sure your allergies and asthma are under control, you can breathe easier about staying safe when you fly.

Michael Blaiss, M.D. , Contributor

Michael S. Blaiss, MD, is a clinical professor of pediatrics at Medical College of Georgia in A...  READ MORE

Tags: allergiesfood allergiesasthmatravel