Air Travel Troubles in Diabetic Devices

Diabetes patients using insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors should be aware of potential problems

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Many diabetes patients use devices that help them track blood sugar and deliver insulin when needed. As new devices are frequently popping up, it is hard to know in advance if the devices will run into problems while in use.

People with diabetes who are about to take a trip in an airplane should be aware that their insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) devices may have problems in the airport and in the air.

"Use precaution when flying."

Insulin pumps are devices that diabetes patients wear in order to keep their blood sugar under control without having to constantly stop to give themselves an insulin injection.

Similarly, CGM devices allow patients to go through their day without continually checking their blood sugar. A CGM device will alert a patient when blood sugar levels are rising or dropping.

In their editorial, Andrew Cornish, BA, and H. Peter Chase, MD, of the University of Colorado Denver, pointed to a recent case and limited research about the problems some diabetes patients may face when going through full-body scanners in airport security and when flying in airplanes.

One study - by Bruce R. King, FRACP, PhD, of the University of Newcastle in Australia, and colleagues - suggested insulin pumps may unintentionally deliver insulin when patients are flying in an airplane. The change in pressure that happens during air travel may be to blame.

Cornish and Dr. Chase also referred to a recent case involving a teenage boy with type 1 diabetes. The boy was forced to walk through a full-body scanner in the airport security line while wearing his insulin pump.

"When an insulin pump or CGM device is passed through a full-body scanner, X-ray scanner, or other imaging equipment, there is a risk the motor may experience electromagnetic malfunction," the editorial authors said. In other words, this imaging equipment has the potential to make diabetes devices work improperly.

The authors' point was not to prove that airport security scanners are guaranteed to break insulin pumps or CGM devices - that evidence is limited and more research is needed. Rather, they wanted to bring awareness to the possibility that air travel can damage these diabetes management devices.

"It is probable that on any given day, large numbers of travelers subject their insulin pumps and/or CGM devices to X-ray and full-body machines, and some may unknowingly experience mild (or worse) malfunctioning as a result. More research is needed to better evaluate the frequency of problems and the type of problems most likely (e.g., increased vs. decreased insulin delivery from an insulin pump)," the authors said.

"Awareness is thus paramount, and it is the responsibility of diabetes care providers to increase this awareness in their patients," they said.

In the case of the teenage boy, it was unclear whether the security scanner damaged his insulin pump. Be that as it may, he was forced to go through the scanner even though he had a doctor's note explaining the purpose of his insulin pump and the possible damage that could happen to the pump if it passed through a full-body scanner.

The note read that a pat-down should be done instead of the full-body scan which is entirely in accord with airport security guidelines: "If you are concerned or uncomfortable about going through the walk-through metal detector with your insulin pump, notify the Security Officer that you are wearing an insulin pump and would like a full-body pat-down and a visual inspection of your pump instead."

The study by Dr. King and colleagues found that low pressure conditions - which occur in air travel - can increase the delivery of insulin. Even though this finding could have been predicted, "it is a new challenge to make sure patients are adequately informed of a possible problem before traveling," said Cornish and Dr. Chase.

Doctors must boost awareness among their diabetes patients about the potential problems of both airport security scanners and air travel, the editorial authors concluded.

The editorial was published October 19 in Diabetes Technology & Therapeutics.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 24, 2012
Last Updated:
October 25, 2012