Deep vein thrombosis is a potentially life-threatening medical condition that is sometimes linked to long flights. Even though it can be lethal, the chance of an average traveler developing it is fairly small. According to the studies, the incidence of occurrence is about 0.5% for people with low to intermediate risk after traveling for about 8 hours.
DVT occurs when blood clots in the deep veins of the legs, affecting blood flow. The most dangerous part is that if a venous blood clot breaks off, it could go straight to the heart, which can then pump it to the lungs. A clot in the lungs could block normal respiration and the person could die suddenly. This is called Pulmonary embolism, it is a leading cause of sudden death.
You may be wondering how this frightening condition is linked to flying. Well, let’s discuss the causes and risk factors for developing DVT.
Causes and Risk Factors for DVT
There are three main things that cause DVT. In medicine, they are known as the Virchow’s triad:
- Venous stasis: When blood moves slowly in the veins (mainly in the leg after long periods of immobility)
- Endothelial damage: When the inner lining of blood vessels are injured (like after surgery)
- Increased coagulability: When blood has an increased likelihood of clotting. Like when taking estrogen-based oral contraceptives or if you have a background blood disorder.
The risk factors for developing DVT are:
- Sitting for long periods of time (like long flights)
- Prolonged hospital admission
- Being overweight
- Being older than 40 years
- Taking the combined contraceptive pill
- Undergoing hormone replacement therapy
- Being pregnant or less than 6 weeks post-delivery
- Having a genetic blood disorder
- Recent surgery, especially in the abdomen, pelvic area or lower limbs
- Having varicose veins
- Heart disease
DVT and Flying
Travel is good for your health. In fact, there are many benefits including improving cardiovascular health. However, flights that are over 4 hours can increase the chance of developing DVT, especially if you stay immobile, have very little room to move your legs, or have one or more other risk factors listed above.
The signs and symptoms of DVT are:
- Leg swelling (usually one leg)
- Increased skin temperature on the affected leg
- Calf pain
- Skin color change on the affected leg
The signs and symptoms of a Pulmonary embolism (when a blood clot has been dislodged to the lungs) are:
- Sudden chest pain
- Sudden difficulty breathing
You should seek medical help if you notice any of these signs or symptoms.
How To Prevent DVT When On A Long Flight
Since we have explained the link between flying and DVT, let’s discuss strategies for preventing it.
1. Walk Around and Stretch Your Feet
If you’re on a long flight, it’s advisable to get up once in a while to walk around or go to the bathroom; you shouldn’t remain seated the whole time. Also, when you are seated, you can do some calf exercises to ensure blood flow is optimized.
For instance, you can extend your leg and pull your toes towards you or pull your knee towards your chest for a few seconds up to 10 times at intervals throughout the flight. The key is not tp keep your legs in one place throughout the flight.
Also, avoid putting any carry-on luggage under your seat as it will take away some leg-room for mobility.
2. Drink Enough Water
Being dehydrated increases the risk of the formation of blood clots, so you have to drink as much water as you can during your flight. The better hydrated you are, the better your venous blood flow will be.
3. Avoid Alcohol and Coffee
Drinks like alcohol and coffee can dehydrate you. Alcohol and caffeine are known diuretics, which means they can make you feel like peeing often. If you are peeing often, you’re losing fluid, which can lead to dehydration. The famous hangover headache alcohol gives is also related to dehydration. Opt for water or fruit juice instead if you’re on a long flight.
4. Wear Comfortable Clothing
Wearing loose clothing can help blood move better around your body. If you wear tight pants, you can be restricting venous blood flow and raising your risk of a DVT.
You should also wear comfortable shoes or even pull your shoes off when onboard if that will make you more comfortable.
5. Avoid Sleeping Pills
The reason behind this is simple, you might oversleep and stay in one position for a really long time. If you’re having problems sleeping, see your doctor and discuss possible strategies to improve your sleep habits but avoid self-medicating with sleeping pills.
6. Use Compression Stockings
This point is for people who are at risk for a DVT. Doctors may prescribe compression stockings that help to improve blood flow in the lower limbs. You shouldn’t buy this without discussing with your doctor.
7. Take Your Prescribed Medication
If you have had a previous DVT or pulmonary embolism, or if your doctor feels you are at risk and prescribes your blood thinners, please, remember to take your medication as advised. Keep your meds in places you can easily recall and set a reminder on your phone if necessary.
8. Talk To Your Doctor
You should talk to your doctor before flying if you have any of the risk factors listed above or if you feel you need to know more about how to stay safe when on a plane. You’ll be able to get qualified one-on-one counsel.
Guest author bio: Guest article by Dr. Omiete Charles-Davies. He is a medical doctor who loves to educate people about their health. He also blogs about travel at travelefficiency.com