From the flight deck: diabetics, watch your insulin

By Genevra Pittman

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Changes in cabin pressure during flights may cause insulin pumps to deliver too much or too little of the medication -- possibly putting sensitive diabetics at risk, researchers report.

They recommend disconnecting the pump before take-off and after landing and making sure there are no air bubbles in the insulin before reconnecting it. But an outside researcher said the concern might only apply to some diabetic patients.

People who are worried should talk with their doctors about the safest way to fly before trying to fiddle with the pumps themselves, he cautioned.

"It's certainly not a frequent and recurring problem that I hear about from patients who fly," said Dr. Robert Cohen, an endocrinologist at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, who was not involved in the new study.

"The people who are very sensitive to small changes in doses are the ones who are going to be most sensitive to this," he told Reuters Health. "People who are on large doses or are not very sensitive...are far less likely to be affected by this."

After learning of a 10-year-old girl with type 1 diabetes whose blood sugar got too low an hour after take-off, Bruce King of John Hunter Children's Hospital in Newcastle, Australia, and colleagues found cases of other insulin-pump-using diabetics who reported the same problem during flight.

To see what was going on, they put ten insulin pumps -- which are meant to deliver insulin throughout the day, generally to people with type 1 diabetes -- on a commercial flight.

Sure enough, during takeoff (when air pressure was decreasing), the pumps delivered about 1 to 1.4 extra units of insulin, on average. (For comparison, a typical adult with type 1 diabetes might need about 50 units of insulin per day.)

And during descent, when pressure was increasing, some insulin was sucked back into the pumps -- causing them to give out too little insulin, by less than 1 unit.

Cohen said he expected those types of changes to be more of a problem for kids and people who use low doses of insulin to begin with.

Still, "Any person using an insulin pump should be aware that big pressure changes can cause this effect," King told Reuters Health in an email.

The pumps used in the study were made by Animas and Medtronic. In a joint statement to Reuters Health, the companies wrote that, "Many factors affect blood glucose during travel and the effect of small dose variations over the course of a plane flight is unlikely to be clinically significant. However, we are both continuing to further explore this subject."

They advise customers to "consult your healthcare team before taking a trip, always be prepared with extra supplies and sources of glucose, and test your blood sugar frequently."

King's team wrote in the journal Diabetes Care that it's possible that rare flight problems that cause very fast depressurization could mean diabetics get way too much insulin.