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  • Q&A with Australian Health Practitioners

    Can you fly when you are 5 weeks pregnant?

    I'm five weeks pregnant and have to fly to Perth. Some people say it's not recommended to fly in the first trimester
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  • 4


    Dr David Moore

    Gynaecologist, Gynaecologist - Infertility (IVF) Specialist, Obstetrician

    David received a solid foundation to training in tertiary obstetric units and has developed skills in the management of complex and high-risk pregnancies and deliveries. … View Profile

    Hi there!

    The short answer: yes, absolutely

    The long answer:
    The first trimester has the highest cumulative risk of miscarriage.  Miscarriage can be a truly horrible human experience, and it is human nature to wonder “what did I do?” or “what could I have done differently?”.  This generally prompts a look at recent life events (like a late night out, a big session at the gym, or a plane flight), and wonder if it somehow contributed.  Due to the common nature of miscarriage, often associations are made (and perpetuated) with little or no scientific evidence to support them.   

    The (theoretical) concern with flying is from radiation exposure due to being at higher altitude.  This is a fact of flying.  However, the radiation “dose” is exceedingly small.  There is relatively weak suggestion in the medical literature that female flight attendants, who work many, many hours at higher altitudes (esp. international flights) may have a very slightly increased risk of miscarriage (over the “natural risk”), but their occupational exposures are many times greater than a casual traveller.

    To talk numbers:  radiation exposure is often measured in “Grays” or “milligrays” (mGy).  To give you some perspective, the amount of background environmental radiation that we are all exposed to constantly ;(by virtue of living on planet Earth - from radon and cosmic rays) is about 1.5-2.5 mGy over a 9 month period (i.e. a pregnancy). 

    A flight to Perth from Brisbane (for example), would be somewhere around 0.03 mGy (you can check this at the FAA's website here).  So really, less than 1% of the amount of radiation all babies are exposed to over 9 months.

    In addition, the effect of radiation on miscarriage, IUGR and fetal malformations has indeed been studied (in atomic bomb survivors after WW2), and no significantly increased risk is found with exposure less than 50 mGy.

    50 mGy is about what your baby would be exposed to if you had 25'000 chest X-rays.  Moreover, brain damage (again, in the babies of pregnant atomic bomb survivors) was not found at all if exposure was before 8 weeks and, between 8-12 weeks, only if exposure was above 200-400 mGy (100'000 to 200'000 chest X-rays).  There is some evidence that childhood leukaemia may be slightly increased with exposures over 10 mGy (5'000 chest X-rays).

    A flight to Perth (from Brisbane) is worth about 10-15 chest X-rays (of fetal exposure). So, you can see, although there is always a “natural risk” of miscarriage, and this is around 25% at 5 weeks, there is good scientific data to reassure us that plane travel adds negligible risk.

    So - enjoy your trip, guilt-free!


    PS- some references for my diatribe:

    1. De Santis M, et al. Ionizing radiations in pregnancy and teratogenesis: a review of literature. Reprod Toxicol 2005; 20:323-9
    2. ACOG Committee Opinion No. 299.  Guidelines for diagnostic imaging during pregnancy.  Obstet Gynecol 2004; 104:647-51
    3. McCullough C, et al. Radiation Exposure and Pregnancy: When Should We Be Concerned? Radiographics 2007; 27:909-18

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