Air travel poses a potential danger for patients with interstitial lung disease. Classified as a large group of disorders, the disease involves inflammation of the lower respiratory tract and breakdown of structures that transfer oxygen to the blood stream. The Australian study showed that the air quality found in commercial airliners can produce a drop in oxygen below suggested levels.
Earlier studies had linked chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) with low blood levels when flying. Yet, it was not clear whether the same result occurred with interstitial lung disease. For the study, the researchers had 15 participants with interstitial lung disease and 10 with COPD exposed to a reduced-oxygen environment, simulating the air in the cabin of a commercial aircraft during flight. The researchers noted in Thorax (November 2004) that at sea level all the participants had acceptable blood oxygenation.
The results of the study indicated that the simulated cabin atmosphere created a huge drop in oxygen saturation in both groups of patients. Although the COPD group had dramatically lower oxygen levels, compared with the interstitial lung disease group, the average in both groups was below recommended levels.