Abyss Scuba Diving

The Dos And Don'ts Of Flying After Diving


The Dos and Don'ts of Flying After Diving: Staying Safe Above Sea Level

Timing is everything when it comes to flying after diving. To avoid decompression sickness, knowing how long to wait before taking to the skies is essential. This article provides you with the crucial intervals and safety protocols. Be informed and fly safely by understanding the do’s and don’ts of post-dive air travel.

Key Takeaways

  • Flying after diving increases the risk of decompression sickness (DCS), a condition caused by nitrogen bubbles forming in the body due to rapid decompression, which can vary in severity and type.

  • The Divers Alert Network (DAN) and the Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society (UHMS) recommend minimum preflight surface intervals of 12 hours after a single no-decompression dive and at least 18 hours after multiple dives or dives requiring decompression stops, to allow for sufficient nitrogen off-gassing.

  • Practical steps to minimize the risk of DCS when traveling include diligent dive planning, adhering to recommended surface intervals, using dive computers to monitor ingassing and off-gassing of nitrogen, maintaining hydration, and avoiding alcohol before and after dives.

Understanding the Risks: Decompression Sickness and Flying

Scuba divers exploring underwater coral reef

Decompression sickness, or DCS, is a health complication that arises when dissolved gas, primarily nitrogen, forms bubbles amidst rapid decompression. These bubbles can hinder circulation and cause an array of symptoms and health issues. DCS manifests in different types, each with varied symptoms. Type I involves skin and musculoskeletal symptoms, Type II presents neurological symptoms, and Type III could be fatal with pulmonary complications.

Recovery from DCS depends on several factors, including the severity of symptoms, promptness of treatment, and the individual’s overall health status. This condition is particularly relevant to divers because flying after diving increases the risk of DCS. The additional pressure reduction experienced during flight can exacerbate the formation of nitrogen bubbles in tissues.

Nitrogen Bubbles and DCS

In diving, decompression incites the creation of nitrogen bubbles as dissolved nitrogen in the tissues exits the solution due to a drop in surrounding pressure. The partial pressure of nitrogen increases with sea depth and diminishes with altitude, which can cause problems when it forms bubbles due to rapid decompression.

These nitrogen bubbles are chiefly responsible for causing DCS. They can obstruct blood vessels, reducing blood flow and potentially leading to tissue damage. DCS symptoms arise from vascular obstruction and inflammation caused by these gas bubbles, which can lead to ischemia and damage to tissues.

Factors Affecting DCS Risk

Several aspects can sway the likelihood of developing DCS. For instance, a patent foramen ovale (PFO) and other conditions can significantly increase an individual’s susceptibility to DCS by allowing blood to bypass gas exchange in the lungs. Furthermore, the risk of DCS is influenced by dive depth, duration, and the breathing gas mixture used, including enriched air nitrox, which affects inert gas uptake.

High levels of physical fitness and regular aerobic exercise may contribute to reduced decompression stress and thus a potentially lower risk of developing DCS. Hydration is critical in preventing DCS as dehydration reduces blood volume and tissue blood flow, impeding inert gas elimination. Other factors like age, sex, and nutritional status may also play roles.

Guidelines for Safe Flying After Diving

Diver checking dive computer before descending

While diving is an exhilarating experience, maintaining safety after the dive, particularly when flying, is of equal importance. The Divers Alert Network (DAN) and the Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society (UHMS) provide guidelines recommending specific preflight surface intervals to minimize decompression stress from lower pressure in aircraft cabins after diving. These recommendations are designed to ensure divers can safely transition from underwater exploration to sky-bound travel.

These flying after diving guidelines are backed by research and consensus reached at the 2002 DAN Flying After Recreational Diving Workshop. The workshop analyzed incidents and data and applies to air dives followed by flights at cabin altitudes of 600 to 2,400 meters for divers without DCS symptoms. Consequently, adhering to these guidelines can significantly mitigate the risk of DCS, ensuring a safe diving journey.

Single No Decompression Dive

A single no-decompression dive, also known as a single no stop dive, refers to a dive that does not require any decompression stops during ascent. For such a dive, it is recommended to wait a minimum of 12 hours before flying. This waiting period, known as the preflight surface interval, allows time for the excess nitrogen absorbed by the body during the dive to be eliminated naturally, reducing the risk of DCS.

Compliance with this guideline is vital for divers as it constitutes the foundation of safe diving practices. This seemingly small step contributes significantly to your safety and augments your diving experience.

Multiple Dives and Repetitive Diving

For divers engaging in multiple dives or repetitive diving, it is essential to consider the minimum preflight surface interval. The recommended minimum wait time before flying after multiple dives per day or multiple days of diving is at least 18 hours. This extended surface interval allows for a more thorough off-gassing of the residual nitrogen in the body.

Respecting these diving guidelines not only helps in reducing the risk of DCS but also contributes to more enjoyable and worry-free diving experiences. After all, to dive safely should always be a diver’s top priority.

Dives Requiring Decompression Stops

Certain types of dives, particularly deep dives or long duration dives, require decompression stops during the ascent. These stops allow the diver’s body to eliminate the excess nitrogen absorbed during the dive.

For dives involving decompression stops, divers are advised to observe a substantially longer preflight surface interval to minimize decompression sickness risks. For these dives, it is recommended to have a preflight surface interval of longer than 18 hours. This will help to ensure safety and reduce the risk of decompression sickness. Following these guidelines diligently ensures the safety and well-being of divers.

Practical Tips for Divers: Reducing DCS Risk While Traveling

Divers planning dive and checking equipment

While guidelines provide a general framework for safe diving practices, there are also practical tips that divers can incorporate into their routines to further reduce DCS risks while traveling. These include diligent dive planning and scheduling, monitoring dive profiles with dive computers, and staying hydrated while avoiding alcohol.

Dive planning and scheduling are essential in maintaining appropriate surface intervals prior to flying, which allows sufficient time for nitrogen to off-gas from the diver’s tissues, effectively reducing the risk of DCS. Moreover, staying well-hydrated is critical in preventing DCS as dehydration reduces blood volume and tissue blood flow, impeding inert gas elimination.

Another vital tool in a diver’s arsenal is the dive computer. Dive computers provide essential real-time data on nitrogen absorption as a function of their dive depth and time spent underwater. By automating decompression time calculations and monitoring dive time, depth, and ascent rate, dive computers minimize human error compared to manual dive table calculations, thus increasing the accuracy of dive time limits.

Dive Planning and Scheduling

Thorough dive planning and scheduling are integral in averting DCS. By ensuring divers have sufficient surface intervals for nitrogen off-gassing before flying, the risk of DCS is significantly reduced. For this reason, divers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with structured guidelines for dive planning, such as the U.S. Navy’s altitude dive tables. These tables provide required surface intervals based on divers’ repetitive group designator and planned altitude increase after diving.

Aside from ensuring certified divers’ safety, meticulous dive planning and scheduling also allow scuba divers to fully relish their underwater experiences during their scuba dive trip. It allows divers to indulge in their underwater explorations while maintaining peace of mind about their post-dive activities, including flying.

Monitoring Dive Profiles with Dive Computers

Monitoring dive profiles is a significant component of safe diving, and this is facilitated by the use of dive computers. These devices are an invaluable tool for divers as they track dive profiles and provide instructions to minimize the risk of DCS.

During a dive, computers constantly recalculate the remaining no-decompression time by evaluating the diver’s current depth and ingassing rate, thus increasing the accuracy of dive time limits. They also store critical information about previous dives, which aids in efficient planning of repetitive dives and accurate maintenance of nitrogen level readings. Therefore, the consistent use of dive computers on all dives ensures adherence to no-decompression limits and is essential to diving safety.

Staying Hydrated and Avoiding Alcohol

Maintaining good hydration is a straightforward yet potent strategy to lessen the risk of DCS. Hydration is critical in preventing DCS as dehydration reduces blood volume and tissue blood flow, impeding inert gas elimination. Therefore, divers should regularly drink water, consuming a glass every 15-20 minutes and at least 2 liters more than their normal daily intake to counter the diuretic effects of diving, flying, and alcohol.

In addition to staying hydrated, it’s also advisable to avoid alcohol consumption. Alcohol can lead to dehydration and increase the risk of DCS. Recognizing symptoms of dehydration, such as:

  • increased thirst

  • dry mouth

  • fatigue

  • headaches

  • muscle cramps

  • particularly dark urine

are critical for divers as indicators for rehydration.

Real-Life Scenarios: Case Studies and Lessons Learned

Real-life scenarios and case studies provide a deeper understanding of DCS and the importance of following conservative diving practices. Take, for example, the cases of Richard Pyle and David Wilder. Both experienced severe cases of DCS following their dives; Pyle after aggressive repetitive diving and Wilder, an aquarium fish collector, resulting in his permanent confinement to a wheelchair.

Pyle’s case highlights the following:

  • The necessity of following conservative diving practices

  • Seeking immediate and correct medical attention

  • The risks associated with trying to self-treat symptoms of DCS such as by in-water recompression

  • Emergency evacuation for divers can also be challenging, particularly in remote locations, as evidenced by Pyle’s need for transportation by the Coast Guard to receive hyperbaric treatment.

These incidents underline the importance of divers reporting their experiences for better research and safety guideline development. The scarcity of specific case study data on DCS due to flying after diving emphasizes this need. The long-term consequences of DCS may include serious conditions like osteonecrosis and muscular weakness, and divers should follow medical guidance when considering a return to diving after experiencing DCS.

What to Do If You Suspect DCS: Recognizing Symptoms and Seeking Treatment

For divers, identifying DCS and promptly seeking treatment is of paramount importance. DCS symptoms often manifest within the first hour following a rapid decompression and can include:

  • joint or muscle pain

  • fatigue

  • dizziness

  • numbness or tingling

  • difficulty breathing

  • chest pain

  • skin rash or itching

  • nausea or vomiting

  • confusion or memory loss

  • more severe effects such as paralysis or unconsciousness

In case of symptoms that may indicate DCS, immediate medical advice should be sought and potential victims should avoid flying.

Symptoms of Arterial Gas Embolism (AGE), such as dizziness and chest pain, should be presumed as DCS until proven otherwise and treated immediately. Treatment for DCS and AGE includes Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, which involves breathing 100% oxygen under pressure to reduce the size of nitrogen bubbles and alleviate symptoms.

Following initial therapy, multiple treatments may be necessary for persistent symptoms, with a period of observation and further treatments if residual effects, such as joint pain or neurological symptoms, are present.

 It is important for individuals to communicate fully with medical professionals regarding their diving history and possible exposure to decompression sickness.

Preventative measures such as proper training, dive planning, and following decompression tables or dive computer recommendations can greatly reduce the risk of developing DCS. Additionally, staying hydrated during dives and avoiding alcohol consumption before or after diving can also help prevent symptoms of DCS.

It is also crucial for divers to be aware of potential triggers that can increase the likelihood of developing DCS, such as high altitudes, extreme cold water temperatures, and strenuous physical activity during a dive. By being mindful of these triggers and taking appropriate precautions, divers can further decrease their chances of experiencing decompression sickness.

In conclusion, while diving offers incredible opportunitiesA Decompression Chamber for treating DCS


In conclusion, the risks associated with flying after diving, particularly the risk of decompression sickness, are significant and should not be overlooked. It’s crucial for divers to understand these risks and adhere to the recommended guidelines for safe flying after diving. Proper planning, monitoring dive profiles, and maintaining hydration are vital practices that can help reduce the risk of DCS.

As divers, our pursuit for exploration should never compromise our safety. So, whether you’re descending into the depths of the ocean or ascending to the heights of the sky, remember to dive safely and fly responsibly. Because in the end, we dive not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it OK to fly after scuba diving?

It is recommended to wait for a minimum of 12 to 18 hours after a single dive, and longer for multiple dives, before flying. This allows the body to off-gas and reduces the risk of decompression sickness.

Can you get the bends from flying after diving?

Yes, you can get the bends from flying after diving, even if you have completed a normal decompression ascent from the dive.

How do you calculate no fly time after diving?

To calculate the no fly time after diving, follow the recommendations of the Divers Alert Network (DAN) and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), which advise a 12-hour minimum surface interval before flying.

How long after flight can I go diving?

You can go diving after a flight, but it's important to consider that long-distance air travel can be tiring, dehydrating, and stressful, which can affect your fitness to dive. Make sure you feel well-rested and hydrated before diving.

What are the symptoms of DCS?

The symptoms of DCS can include joint or muscle pain, fatigue, dizziness, as well as more severe effects such as paralysis or unconsciousness. It is important to seek medical attention if these symptoms occur.

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