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Air Travel and Your Risk of a Blood Clot

Before you board a plane for a long flight to an exotic destination, take a minute to consider your health. A long flight means you'll be cramped in a seat for many hours without being able to move around much. And that means your blood can't flow through your body and back to your heart the way it needs to, which could possibly cause a dangerous blood clot.

Blood Clot Prevention

A blood clot in a vein, known medically as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), can develop in a person who goes for long periods without moving around. With normal movement and physical activity, the muscles in the legs contract,which helps move blood from the legs toward the heart. But when your leg muscles aren’t contracting, blood can pool in the veins, raising the risk that a blood clot will form.

According to the CDC, a blood clots in a vein, or DVT, puts you at risk for pulmonary embolism, a clot that travels from leg to lung, but not for a heart attack or stroke; however, a clot in an artery, or arterial thrombosis, can cause a heart attack or stroke. If you're concerned, ask your doctor about risk factors for arterial thrombosis.

To lessen your risk of DVT on long flights, it's important to maintain good blood circulation. Here are some tips that can help you do that:

Dress appropriately. What you wear can affect your blood circulation on long flights. "Compression stockings have been shown to decrease the risk of symptomless [silent] blood clots in the legs on long flights, but it is unknown whether they prevent serious deep vein thromboses or pulmonary emboli," says Ken Zafren, MD, associate medical director of the Himalayan Rescue Association and a clinical assistant professor in the division of emergency medicine at Stanford University Medical Center. A pulmonary embolism can block blood flow in the lung and can be life-threatening, so it is important to prevent clots from forming. "I recommend the use of compression stockings on long flights, especially for those who have a history of DVT or PE [pulmonary embolism]," Dr. Zafren says.

Choose an aisle seat when possible. "The risk of DVT is probably lower for those who sit in an aisle seat. Elevating the feet when possible may also be helpful," says Zafren.

Don't just sit there. Travelers should move around as often as possible to get their blood flowing and reduce the risk of developing a blood clot. "People who have never had blood clots should get up and walk around at least every two hours,” says Zafren, “unless they are traveling first class and can lie flat during the flight. They should also make sure to drink plenty of fluids — enough to keep their urine clear."

Know the symptoms of DVT. Both frequent fliers and those who don’t fly often should be aware of the symptoms of a blood clot. They include:
  • Leg pain
  • Swelling in the leg
  • Chest pain (can be a sign that a blood clot has traveled to a lung)
  • Shortness of breath (also a sign of a blood clot in a lung)

If you experience any of these symptoms, notify a flight attendant or other airline staff member as soon as possible. "Anyone who has DVT symptoms should seek medical care immediately," says Zafren.

In-Flight Exercises to Get Blood Flowing
Simple leg exercises can help get your blood flowing during air travel and can help reduce your risk of developing a blood clot. Try these the next time you fly:
  • Toe points. Stretch your legs out as straight as possible in front of you. Alternate pointing your toes down toward the floor and then up toward the ceiling.
  • Ankle circles. Stretch your legs out straight in front of you. Rotate your ankles, moving your feet around in circles.
Do each exercise 10 times with each foot, and try to do them once every hour.

You should also take the opportunity to walk around the cabin as often as possible.

If You've Already Had a Blood Clot
Of course, if you’ve had blood clots in the past, it's especially important to remain active during your flight and drink plenty of fluids. You may also have heard that some physicians recommend aspirin to prevent blood clots, but this is a controversial measure and is probably not effective, says Zafren.

If you know you're at higher risk for blood clots and are planning to take a long flight, you might want to talk to your doctor about receiving injections of a drug called low-molecular-weight heparin to prevent clots. If you travel frequently, you can be taught to give yourself injections of heparin. Says Zafren, “These injections can be easily self-administered and provide proven protection."

You can prevent dangerous blood clots when flying. A few simple leg exercises and frequent strolls down the aisle will help keep your blood flowing so you can get to your destination in good health.

Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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