Time needed after scuba diving before flying
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Time needed after scuba diving before flying

Recommendations on the time needed between recreational scuba diving and flying in a commercial airplane, as well as PADI and DAN guidelines to avoid decompression sickness.

Ending a vacation with one last scuba dive before leaving for the airport is often hard to resist – it might be a while before the next chance to dive comes along. As many instructors will advise however, it would not be the safest decision to make.

When boarding an airplane too soon after their last underwater descent, divers risk suffering from decompression sickness. DCS can happen when one experiences a significant atmospheric pressure change within a short period of time; in this case rapidly going from a scuba dive to a high altitude.

The deeper the descent, the higher is the pressure on the body of a diver. Nitrogen, the gas that divers inhale through the air supply, is compressed under pressure. Since the compressed gas is denser than normal, divers inhale more of it then they would at sea level. Nitrogen is not used by the body, so eventually it must be released. During the dive large amounts of it dissolve in the blood and get absorbed by the body tissues. The deeper the diver descends or the longer the dive, the more nitrogen goes into the tissues. Gradually ascending back to lower atmospheric pressure allows a diver to safely release nitrogen through the lungs. A rapid ascent however causes the gas to bubble inside the body, leading to DCS. Some of the symptoms are body rashes, fatigue, joint pain, and in more severe cases unconsciousness, hearing loss and paralysis.

To prevent divers from developing DCS, various organizations have conducted research on flying after diving, establishing a number of safety guidelines.

The Professional Association of Diving Instructors suggests waiting a minimum of 12 hours after a single dive and a minimum of 18 hours after repetitive or multiday dives – a recommendation applying to diving within the no-decompression limits. After diving with decompression stops, PADI guidelines suggest a minimum of 18 hours in either case. Diving medicine specialists often advise an optimal scenario of 24 hours between diving and flying, particularly following the longer or more frequent dives.

Divers Alert Network, a nonprofit that promotes safe diving, has also conducted extensive research on the subject. In 2002 the organization hosted a Flying After Diving workshop, aimed at creating new guidelines for recreational diving. Similarly to PADI recommendations, the workshop conclusions suggest a waiting time of 12 to 18 hours between diving and flying. These guidelines apply to divers not showing any symptoms of DCS after diving and before flying at 2,000 to 8,000 feet. When deciding on the time between diving and flying, DAN also advises to take into consideration the frequency of diving in the past few days, the age of the divers and their health conditions.

The work by Professor Albert Buehlmann, a world renowned Swiss decompression pioneer, was later adopted by the U.S. Navy Diving manual and suggests that immediate ascent to 2,000 feet or 600 meters after diving is possible with low DCS risk. Some organizations still advise at least a small interval of time between the two activities.

Many agencies recommend waiting at least 24 hours after diving and before ascending to altitudes higher than 2,000 feet. The consensus is that the longer the waiting time between diving and flying, the lower risk of developing decompression sickness.

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