Travelling with kids? These are the most common in-flight emergencies parents face

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

Nausea, vomiting, fever and allergic reactions are the most common in-flight medical emergencies in children, finds a new large study.

According to the research, published in Annals of Emergency Medicine15.5 per cent of mid-air emergencies involve kids - and one-in-six require additional care.

As part of the study, researchers examined in-flight emergency records from January 2015 to October 2016 for passengers under the age of 19. Of the 75,587 unique calls for ground-based medical support,11,719 involved children. The calls came from flights involving 77 airlines on six continents.

"Considering that greater than 4 billion passengers travel by airplane each year, more people are spending more time in the air than ever before," the authors write. "For reference, nearly 11 million people occupy the commercial airspace on any given day—the equivalent to the population of London, England—so in-flight medical events can and in fact do happen."

Analysis of the calls revealed that the most common medical incidents in children involved nausea and vomiting (33.9 percent), fever or chills (22.2 percent), or acute allergic reaction (5.5 percent). This was followed by abdominal pain (4.7 per cent), gastro (4.5 per cent) fainting (3.5 per cent) and seizure (2.6 per cent).

Eleven in-flight deaths were recorded.

Most incidents occurred on long-haul flights (76.1 per cent) and 14 per cent involved lap-infants (those aged under 24 months).

The youngest patient was just 25 days old.

For the tiniest passengers, the most common diagnoses were fever (33 per cent), vomiting (18.3 per cent), blunt trauma (6.9 per cent), respiratory distress (5.7 per cent) or seizures (4.8 per cent).


When in-flight care was necessary, it was most often provided by crew members only, (88.6 per cent) followed by a doctor (8.7 per cent), or nurse (2.1 per cent) passenger who responded to a call for help. While most in-flight emergencies were resolved during the flight, 16.5 per cent required further care on landing, while 0.5 per cent required the aircraft to be diverted.

"Certain types of pediatric in-flight medical events, like seizures or cases requiring the involvement of an onboard nurse or physician medical volunteer, are significantly more likely to result in aircraft diversion," said lead author Dr Alexandre Rotta. "However, not every serious in-flight emergency leads to diversion. Although input from the onboard medical volunteer is considered, the decision to divert rests ultimately with the pilot in command and must weigh multiple factors, including the safety of all passengers and crew, fuel load, and the availability of suitable diversion points."

​According to Dr Rotta, parents need to be mindful of steps they can take to avoid mid-air emergencies. 

"While travelling on a plane, it's important to make sure our most vulnerable and precious cargo -- our children -- are as safe as possible, especially if a medical emergency should occur," she says. "Remember to carry your child's medicine onto the plane rather than leaving it in checked baggage. Dr Rotta explains that this is particularly important as the study also highlighted issues with medical kits found on board some airlines, noting that they may not be equipped to dealt with pediatric patients.

"In the absence of specific regulatory requirements currently, the inclusion in medical kits of medications and equipment suitable for children is ultimately left to the airline's discretion," the authors note. "Our study suggests that onboard availability of a medical kit containing pediatric formulations of antipyretic(medications that reduce fever) analgesic, and antiallergic medications, along with more suitable means of administering bronchodilators, could enhance the care of a large number of pediatric travellers requiring inflight assistance."

Adds Dr Rotta: "We hope this study informs opportunities to improve in-flight safety equipment and highlights the importance of coordination between in-air and ground-level emergency response."