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What To Know Before Flying After Cataract Surgery

What To Know Before Flying After Cataract Surgery

For many, traveling by plane is unavoidable. This could include traveling to visit loved ones. This may just simply be traveling to a relaxing vacation. But when vision declines and cataract surgery is needed, trying to fit both in may become challenging.

Fortunately, there is no need to cancel your plane ticket on the account of cataract surgery. While flying in a plane can cause your eyes to dry out more, there are no medical restrictions on flying after cataract surgery.

This doesn’t give you a free pass to fly just anywhere. Before we get into the whole issue of dry eye, let’s first cover one important thing to keep in mind - being out of town after cataract surgery.

Issue Going Out Of Town

Most patients after cataract surgery will have a post-operative visit on one day, one week and one month out after their procedure. And there is a good reason for these visits. During these appointments, your eye doctor checks your vision and the recovery after cataract surgery. This ensures everything heals as intended.

Missing appointments is not recommended.

If you plan on traveling, be sure to also plan on returning for your post-operative appointments.

If you can travel and still return for your appointment, go right ahead. (But still let your surgeon know you'll be heading out of town)

If an travel emergency comes up and you have miss your appointment, be sure to notify your surgeon so that other arrangements may be made. This could either be rescheduling your appointment. Or, if necessary, visiting another eye doctor while out of town.

Either way, whether having appointments in town or out of town, it is important to have someone make sure the eye is healing appropriately from cataract surgery.

Access To Medical Care

But outside of the scheduled appointments, there is another thing to keep in mind.

The vast majority of individuals recover from cataract surgery without any additional issues. But rarely the recovery doesn’t go exactly as hoped.

One feared concern is the development of an infection after cataract surgery. While rare, infections must be recognized and treated urgently. Having worsening vision, redness and pain in the eye are all signs an infection may be developing. Delay in treating an infection can lead to permanent vision loss.

Treating an infection requires access to specialized ophthalmology medical care. Something you may ONLY find in a developed city. After cataract surgery is not the time to fly to remote deserts or jungles with limited access and connection to the outside world.

Remote mountain peak

Cool to visit! Just maybe not immediately after cataract surgery…; image by Daniel Price on Unsplash

Dry Eye

If you do have a flight coming up, it is important to pay attention to dry eye. After cataract surgery, many will have a short-term increase in dry eye for the first month.

The surgery itself will cause the eye to dry out. Betadine antiseptic medication used to sterilize the eye is actually also toxic to the eye (but just too great at killing bacteria to avoid). The eye can then dry out a bit more as it is exposed during the surgery.

But dry eye continues with the eye drops used after the procedure. Eye drops contain preservatives to prevent the growth of bacteria. These preservatives can irritate the eye and dry it out. As long as you are on eye drops after cataract surgery, you can have an increase in dry eye.

Dry eye is uncomfortable. With dry eye, you can have a burning, aching, feeling of something in the eye or throbbing sensation.

Dry eye can also blur vision. On the surface of our eye is a tear film. In normal times, this tear film is smooth and clear. But if this tear film dries out, it becomes irregular and makes vision blurry. This in turn will lead to fluctuating vision.

Untreated dry eye can actually cause the dry eye to become worse. So to have the best recovery after cataract surgery we want to make sure the dry eye heals up as well.

This is done by:

  • Using treatments such as artificial tears to supplement our own natural tears
  • Avoiding situations that will cause the eyes to dry out more. This includes airplanes..

Dry Plane Environment

As we go higher in a plane, the air outside the plane becomes less and less dense. Because of this, airplanes pressurize the cabin so that humans don’t pass out from the lack of oxygen in the air.

The large jet engines on planes suck up a lot of air. Not all of this is needed by those engines so some is diverted to the rest of the plane to pressurize the cabin.

But high up at the altitude that planes fly, there isn't much humidity in the air. In fact, at those altitudes, the humidity is less than 1%. So the air coming into the cabin is almost essentially completely dry.

This causes the air on the plane to be very dry.

When in dry environments, the eyes will dry out more. It’s the same reason why our skin can dry out more as well. Water has an easier time escaping from our eyes and body into the dry air around us. Tears will evaporate off our eyes quicker when flying on an airplane.

Compounding the issue is that traveling also breaks out usual routine. We may drink less water, eat unhealthier, not get as much sleep. And all of this can contribute to more dry eye as well.

What To Do About it

Unfortunately there isn’t much you can do about the dry humidity on an air plane.

What about a personal travel humidifier? Think again…you won't be able to use it on a plane.

But knowing how the plane will affect your eyes allows you to take measures to prevent the dry eye from getting worse on the plane flight.

Using artificial tears is the most common way to treat mild dry eye. And during the flight, increasing the frequency of artificial tears can help prevent the eyes from drying out more.

Normal artificial tears contain preservatives similar to the prescription eye drops after cataract surgery. So look for preservative-free artificial tears. These artificial tears can be taken as often as every hour to prevent the eyes from drying out while flying after cataract surgery.

Outside of artificial tears:

  • If you can nap on planes, great! Napping keeps your eyes closed and protected from drying out.
  • If you can’t nap (I for sure can’t), downloading a good audiobook, will allow you to rest your eyes while also being entertained.
  • Make sure to drink water during the plane flight. Fill up a water bottle in the airport to sip on during the plane flight to avoid getting dehydrated.
  • Closing the air vent above your seat can help reduce the amount of dry air that flows towards your eyes.
  • If you have more severe dry eye, talk with your surgeon ahead of time. Additional dry eye treatments other than artificial tears can help with the treatment of your dry eye (even outside of flying).

Summary

There are no medical contraindications to flying on a plane after cataract surgery. If you do decide to travel, however, be sure to make sure you will have appropriate follow-up for your eyes and are within access to emergency eye care. And taking care of your eyes during the plane flight will help ensure that the flight won’t be a set-back to your recovery from dry eye.

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