• If you need additional advice after reading the guidance on this page please contact your doctor or airline.

    Your doctor can contact our Aviation Health Unit for more information.

  • Most people understand the need for high levels of security at airports and on board aircraft. Methods used to screen passengers and their baggage range from visual inspections and a hand-search to the use of several types of screening equipment. Some people worry that their health may be affected by the equipment used in security checks.

    Most people will be used to walking through an archway after having taken all metal items - coins, mobile phones and so on - out of their pockets. These arches are walk through metal detectors and will also detect metal inside the body, such as artificial joints and heart pacemakers.

    If the equipment alarm goes off, a security guard will usually carry out a hand-search. It may be helpful to carry a letter from your doctor if you have had a joint replacement or pacemaker which can set off the alarm. You may also be asked to be screened by a security scanner.

    Security scanners are used to show items that may be hidden under clothing and have been approved for use at airports in the UK and many other countries.

    There are strict rules to protect your privacy; therefore an effective privacy policy must be put in place by the airport operator to protect individuals when being screened by security scanners. This must include the installation and use of Automatic Threat Recognition (ATR) software. ATR software interprets the scan data, instead of creating an image, and identifies areas where items may be concealed on the body. These areas are flagged on a standardised stick-figure on a screen, to indicate to the security officer areas of the individual's body which should receive a targeted hand-search.  

    You may have read articles in the press about being exposed to radiation in the security scanners and be particularly concerned if you fly frequently. All security scanners must use millimetre wave technology, as it poses no known health and safety risks. Millimetre wave scanners utilise a very low power, non-ionising form of electromagnetic technology. Non-ionising radiation refers to electromagnetic waves which do not alter atoms in molecules by removing electrons. The amount of electromagnetic radiation emitted by millimetre wave security scanners is many times lower than that emitted by a mobile phone. 

    Before this technology was introduced, its safety was checked by the Health Protection Agency (HPA). 

    At airports where security scanners are used, you can ask for an alternative method of screening if you are unwilling to be scanned. This may be an enhanced hand- search in private to ensure equivalence with a security scanner. Security staff can exercise discretion as to the extent of the search, subject to the security officer being able to reasonably satisfy themselves that no prohibited article is present.  This could be more intrusive than a hand-search you may have previously experienced or seen when a passenger has alarmed the walk through metal detector - for example, you may be taken to a private room or cubicle and be asked to remove or loosen items of clothing.  Should an enhanced hand-search in private be required, you may have a companion with you if you wish and the search will be carried out by a security staff member of the same sex as you, along with a witness to the search.

    The manufacturers of medical equipment usually have patient support services, available online via the internet or by telephone, and they should be able to give advice on any potential problems that can be caused by airport security screening.

    It is also helpful to carry a letter from your doctor confirming that you have been fitted with the medical equipment, whether this is fitted internally or carried on the outside of the body. This should be shown to the security staff, if possible before you go through screening.

    Devices made of or containing metal, such as hip replacements may set off the alarm in the walk through metal detectors but will not be affected or damaged by them. They may also be seen on security scanners, but again should not be affected or damaged.

    There are a number of manufacturers of insulin pumps and unfortunately they do not all give the same advice. This varies from assurance that the pumps can safely go through any screening equipment, including X-ray equipment, to advice that the equipment may be affected by security scanners.

    If you use an insulin pump, it is therefore important to contact the manufacturer of the particular pump that you use for advice. It is also sensible to contact your airline and the airports you will travel through to find out their requirements if the manufacturer advises that your pump cannot go through some screening equipment.

    If you do not wish to be screened by security scanner you can ask for a hand- search. This may be an enhanced hand-search in private to ensure equivalence with a security scanner. Security staff can exercise discretion as to the extent of the search, subject to the security officer being able to reasonably satisfy themselves that no prohibited article is present.

    The security officer must explain to the individuals to be screened how they are required to present themselves for screening by security scanner.  Any alarms will be subject to, at least, a 'targeted search' of the area of the body that has alarmed; it may be necessary for a hand-search in private to be carried out.

    You should not be asked to remove your medical device for screening.  

    Prosthetic devices are replacement body parts widely used in modern medical treatment. They may be fitted internally or externally and include replacement lenses in the eye following cataract surgery, artificial heart valves, breast implants and external prostheses used in cosmetic surgery or following breast cancer treatment, hip replacements and artificial limbs.

    Both internal and external devices that are partly or completely made of metal are likely to be detected by the walk through metal detectors. Other external devices, such as external breast prostheses, may also be detected by security scanners. Security staff may wish to carry out an additional hand- search if you are found to be wearing an external prosthesis. This would be carried out in a private room and you would be able to ask for the search to be done by a security staff member of the same sex as you. You can also ask for a friend or family member travelling with you to be in the room while the search is carried out.

    It may be helpful to carry a letter from your doctor confirming that you have been fitted with the medical prosthesis, whether this is fitted internally or is an external device. This should be shown to the security staff, if possible before you go through screening.

    Additional useful information for those who have had breast implants or wear an external breast prosthesis is available from the breast cancer charity, at: Breast Cancer Care