• 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 'pat down' searches to the use of several types of scanner. 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 metal detectors and will also detect metal inside the body, such as artificial joints and heart pacemakers.

    If the machine alarm goes off, a security guard will usually carry out a 'pat down' 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 have a whole-body scan.

    Body scanners such as the Rapiscan can be 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, so for example the security person who is checking the screen must not be able to see the person who is being scanned. You may also be able to request that the security person who looks at the scan is of the same sex. When the scan is finished and you move away from the scanner, the images of you are automatically deleted and cannot be restored.

    You may have read articles in the press about being exposed to radiation in the scanners and be particularly concerned if you fly frequently. There are different types of scanners, but some of the latest types of equipment for screening passengers use very low dose X-rays.

    Before the low dose X-ray scanners were introduced, their safety was checked by the Health Protection Agency (HPA). To put the issue in perspective, the radiation received from the scanning process is roughly equivalent to the natural 'background' radiation you receive during 2 minutes flying in an aircraft or one hour on the ground.

    At some airports where whole body scanners are used, you may be able to ask for a hand search if you are unwilling to be scanned. This is likely to be more intrusive than the 'pat down' checks you may have experienced or seen when a passenger has triggered the arch metal detector - for example, you may be taken to a private room or cubicle and be asked to remove or loosen items of clothing.

    There are some airports where you will not be allowed to travel if you refuse to be scanned. It is therefore advisable to check with your airline and the airports you will be passing through to see if they do allow an alternative check.

    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 or heart pacemakers, may set off the alarm in the arch metal detectors but will not be affected or damaged by them. They may also be seen on whole body 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 even the low-dose X-ray equipment used in some whole body 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.

    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 archway metal detectors. Other external devices, such as external breast prostheses, may also be detected by whole-body 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