You now know some tips on how to make sure your flight doesn’t make you sick and how to sleep on a plane. Unfortunately, there is another concern for air travellers that can be life threatening.
Swollen and puffy feet are a common problem amongst air travellers. Though uncomfortable, the condition is usually harmless. Deep vein thrombosis, on the other hand, is much more serious.
Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) can occur when the blood coagulates to form a clot in the lower leg. Sometimes a blood clot can travel through the bloodstream. The consequences can be dire if it travels to your lungs, heart or brain.
National Blood Clot Alliance (NBCA) research shows that too many lives are lost because of blood clots. In fact, in the United States, an average of one person dies from blood clot complications every six minutes. Blood clots claim more lives than AIDS, breast cancer and motor vehicle accidents combined! And because public awareness is so low, fewer than one in four people have any knowledge of blood clots or signs of their symptoms.
The NBCA has put the risk factors for blood clots into three categories:
Trips longer than four hours by plane, car, bus or train are categorised as having a moderate risk factor for developing Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) (blood clot in the leg) or Pulmonary Embolism (PE) (blood clot in the lung).
According to the New Zealand Air Traveller’ Thrombosis Study (NZATT) by the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand (MRINZ), 1% of longdistance air travellers develop blood clots. They are usually painless, but some clots can cause pain and swelling. Remember, it can be fatal if a clot breaks off and reaches the lungs, brain or heart.
This NZATT study discovered that 10% of patients admitted to New Zealand hospitals with a DVT or PE had recently travelled by air. This is considerably higher than reported in previous studies and could be related, in part, to our geographic isolation. These findings add weight to the evidence that air travellers’ thrombosis is a significant public health problem, particularly in New Zealand and Australia.
The following factors were identified by The National Blood Clot Alliance as increasing your risk of developing a travel-related blood clot:
- Over the age of 65
- Inherited blood clotting disorder
- Inability to move freely
- Pregnancy, including the six weeks after the baby is born
- Use of a contraceptive pill, patch or ring that contains oestrogen
- Participation in hormone replacement therapy
- Previous DVT or pulmonary embolism
Remember, swelling and blood clots can occur because of
- Cabin pressure—although aircraft cabins are pressurised, the air pressure at cruising altitude is equivalent to the outside air pressure at 1,800–2,400m (6,000–8,000ft) above sea level. The cabin’s low air pressure can slow your blood circulation and cause blood and fluid to pool in your lower legs and feet, leading to swelling.
- Lack of movement—sitting in the same position for long periods of time can cause blood and fluid to pool in your lower legs and feet. If you don’t move around and stretch regularly the blood and fluid can cause swelling in the lower legs and feet.
- Low humidity—the air inside the cabin of a plane is extremely dry with a humidity level of less than 20%; the average comfortable humidity level for humans is 40–70%! This makes us more susceptible to dehydration.
Precautions you can take
- Travel light—keep your on-board essentials in a small bag stored in your seat back pocket and stow the rest of your carry-on luggage in the overhead lockers. This will provide plenty of room to stretch your feet and legs.
- Wear comfortable and loose-fitting clothing
- Exercise every half hour. This might include: – Bending and straightening your toes, feet and legs – Pressing the balls of your feet firmly against the floor or foot rest – Massaging your feet and ankles to stimulate blood flow – Walking up and down the aisle – Keeping your legs uncrossed – Taking a short walk once you arrive at your destination
- Wear graduated compression socks—the graduated pressure (highest at the ankles and lowest at the knees) helps prevent blood pooling in your calves and stimulates blood circulation.
- Stay hydrated—water is your friend! Avoid dehydrating drinks like caffeine and alcohol, and try herbal tea instead. Try to avoid salty food, like nuts and potato chips as they will dehydrate you!
Symptoms of DVT—leg clot
- Swelling, usually in one leg
- Leg pain or tenderness
- Reddish or bluish skin discolouration
- Leg is warm to touch
Symptoms of PE—lung clot
- Sudden shortness of breath
- Sharp and stabbing chest pain that may worsen with each breath
- Rapid heart rate
- Unexplained cough, sometimes with bloody mucus
Learning how to recognise DVT can save your life. If you experience any of these symptoms, either during your flight or after you arrive at your destination, seek medical assistance immediately.
If you can’t wait each week feel free to view these tips online. A free e-book with this information can be downloaded from TXG’s website