Planning a holiday when you have a heart condition

If you’ve got a heart condition, you may be worried about planning a summer holiday. But a heart problem doesn’t have to mean an end to your holidays, as long as you have the right information and prepare properly. We answer some common questions.

Open suitcase prepared for a holiday

If your heart condition is stable, then a holiday can be a great way to rest and relax. If you’ve had a heart attack, the time it takes to recover varies from person to person. You should ask your GP or heart specialist for advice on when you are well enough to go. 

Choosing your destination

The first step of planning any holiday is deciding where to go. Both very cold and very hot weather can aggravate certain heart conditions. “Ask your GP or cardiologist for advice,” says Dr Robert Henderson, Consultant Cardiologist and Trent Cardiac Centre in Nottingham. “Angina is made worse by cold weather, but it can also be exacerbated in very hot weather.”

Can I go to a hot country if I have a heart condition?

You can go to hot countries, but you should take extra care in extreme temperatures, as this can put added strain on your heart. If you are somewhere hot, keep hydrated and try to sit in the shade between 11am and 3pm, when the sun’s rays are at their most powerful.

It’s easy not to notice the strength of the sun when there’s a sea breeze blowing

It’s easy not to notice the strength of the sun when there’s a sea breeze blowing, so remember to wear a hat and suncream at all times. If you can, adjust your body clock so you can enjoy a siesta in the afternoon and stay up a bit later in the cooler hours. It works for the locals!

Can I go on a mountain walking holiday after a heart event?

If you’ve recently recovered from a heart attack or heart surgery, you should avoid travelling to high altitudes. The higher you go above sea level, the less oxygen there is in the air, which can cause extreme breathlessness or angina. Try to stick to destinations that are lower than 2,000 metres to reduce this risk, and always get advice from your GP if you are thinking of going higher. And remember, if you are planning to go with a walking group, go at your own pace.

Can I fly if I have a heart condition?

If you’ve decided to fly, it may be worth informing the airline carrier of your condition

Oxygen levels in aeroplane cabins are lower than on the ground, but the majority of people with heart conditions should still be able to fly. “As a rule of thumb, if you can climb two flights of stairs there’s no reason why you should not travel on an aeroplane,” says Dr Henderson. If you’ve decided to fly, it may be worth informing the airline carrier of your condition so they can have supplementary oxygen available. Consider asking your doctor if this will be necessary for you.

Can I fly if I have high blood pressure?

If you have high blood pressure, it is generally safe to fly as long as it is well controlled. If your blood pressure is unstable or very high, you should speak to your doctor before making any travel plans.

Planning a trip with a map and notepad

Preparing properly

As with any trip, making sure you have everything you need before you jet off will ensure you’re prepared for different eventualities. This includes knowing what to expect at the airport, how much medication to take, and checking you have the right travel insurance cover.

Will my pacemaker or ICD cause problems with the airport scanner?

In the UK, a hand-held device is usually used. But in other countries, you may be asked to walk through a security system.

Don’t worry if the alarm goes off - the metal casing of your device may trigger it

Most modern pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) are shielded against outside interference, so this shouldn’t cause a problem. However, it’s important to tell airport staff that you have one fitted and to take your device identification card or letter from your doctor. This will also help to give background information if you need to be seen by a specialist while you are overseas.

If you are asked to pass through the scanners, walk at a normal pace and don’t linger. And don’t worry if the alarm goes off, as the metal casing of your device may trigger it.

How much of my medication should I take with me?

Making sure you have plenty of medication for your holiday is easy with a bit of careful planning. Ask your GP to write a prescription that will last through your holiday, allowing for a couple of extra days’ worth to cover any delays. “Getting medication overseas can be difficult,” says Dr Henderson. “Taking some spare medication just in case you are delayed or lose some is probably wise.”

Keep a reasonable supply of your medications in your hand luggage, to reduce the chances of losing them. Ask your airline for its guidelines on carrying medication, as you may have to pack the rest in your checked luggage. It’s a good idea to make a list of your medication – including the brand and generic names, and keep this list in your hand luggage. You could take a copy of your prescription, too.

If your medication needs to be refrigerated, ask your pharmacist how to keep it cool while you’re on the move.

How do I get travel insurance if I have a heart condition?

It is crucial that you are properly covered before you go abroad. Having a heart condition doesn’t mean you can’t get travel insurance, but it makes the process more complicated. Make sure you speak to your GP before you start looking, as insurers will often ask for detailed information about your medical history.

Declare all your past and present health conditions when applying for cover, as making a mistake or forgetting to include something on the form could result in a claim being refused.

A European Health Insurance Card can entitle UK citizens to free or reduced-cost medical treatment when travelling in Europe

The BHF has put together a list of insurers, based on feedback from heart patients who have used them. Get our Insurance information sheet or call our Heart Matters helpline on 0300 330 3300. The Association of British Insurers may also be able to help if you’re struggling to find travel insurance. It’s important to make sure you know what the policy does and doesn’t cover before you buy.

A European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) can entitle UK citizens to free or reduced-cost medical treatment when travelling in Europe. However, it does not replace travel insurance. Get an EHIC for free from ehic.org.uk or call 0300 330 1350.

What if I need medical care while I'm abroad?

"The country you choose may not have the medical services we expect in the UK," says Dr Henderson. "Do a little research into where you're going, then it's a question of what level of risk you're prepared to take."

Take recent doctor's letters, so you can show them to healthcare professionals if you need medical treatment while you're away. Some people also take test results, such as ECG.

If you're travelling in Europe, pack your European Health Insurance Card (see above).

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