A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Can plane travel increase blood clot risk?

Airplane flying through clouds in the sky - Air travel and blood clots - Myth Busters

Flying in “economy class” may not increase your risk for developing a blood clot. Being immobile for long periods anywhere is a risk factor.

Fear of “economy class syndrome” need not extend to worries about getting a blood clot. But if you are traveling in a plane, train, auto or boat for more than four hours take some steps – literally – to avoid a potentially deadly blood clot.

The American College of Chest Physicians’ (CCP) guidelines thoroughly debunked a myth that simply flying in economy class could put you at more risk for developing a blood clot, also called deep vein thrombosis. While researchers found no compelling evidence for this myth, they did caution that being immobile for long periods anywhere is a risk factor.

Move around the plane or train during long trips

“I think most people are probably aware that being immobile on a prolonged flight does increase the risk for blood clots,” said Hematologist/Oncologist Dr. Michael Husak of Marshfield Clinic. The CCP guidelines mirror what Husak tells his patients: “You can certainly lower blood clot risk by moving around the plane and squeezing calf muscles while seated.”

This is important to know. Many times a clot will form and dissolve on its own. But a serious health problem can occur if a part of the blood clot breaks off and travels to your lungs, causing a blockage. This is called a pulmonary embolism and, while rare, can be fatal.

For flights longer than eight to 10 hours, Husak pointed out several factors that may increase your risk of developing deep vein thrombosis. These include a previous blood clot, hereditary predisposition to clots, cancer, recent surgery or trauma, being immobile, using estrogen, pregnancy and simply sitting in a window seat.

Get up from your window seats, despite other passengers

“People in window seats are less inclined to get up and inconvenience another passenger sitting nearby,” he said. For travelers with an increased risk for travel-related deep vein thrombosis, the guidelines recommend frequent walking around the plane, calf muscle stretching, sitting in an aisle seat if possible, or using compression stockings.

About half of the people with deep vein thrombosis have no symptoms. The other half may feel or notice swelling of the leg or arm, pain or tenderness that you can’t explain, or skin warm to the touch and red. The more serious pulmonary embolism will likely cause:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Faster or irregular heartbeat
  • Chest pain that worsens with a deep breath or coughing
  • Anxiety
  • Coughing up blood
  • Lightheadedness or fainting

If you have any of these symptoms, seek medical help immediately.

Learn why sitting too much can hurt your health.

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