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Air travel health tips

Most of us have been on a flight at some point, whether it was for business or for a holiday, but on long distance flights, the risk of suffering from things such as deep vein thrombosis or higher blood pressure increases. For some of us with medical conditions, or who are older, DVT can prove to be dangerous or have a significant impact on health.  If you think you have a higher risk of DVT occurring whilst in flight, consult your GP before you go on your holiday.

Flying and Deep Vein Thrombosis

DVT is caused by long periods of inactivity and with limited space to move around on modern aircraft, it means that the chances of developing small clots in your legs and feet are more likely. The body’s own versions of clot busters kick in to stop these clots forming but in people with certain medical conditions or risk factors, the clots can get big enough to block a vein. Cancer, heart disease, infection, pregnancy, history of stroke, recent injury or surgery as well as obesity can all raise the risk of developing deep vein thrombosis whilst, or after, being in the air.

DVT doesn’t have any immediate signs, meaning that most patients don’t realise they’ve developed it until after they’ve got off the plane. Symptoms of DVT include:

  • pain, swelling or tenderness in your leg or calf
  • a heavy ache in the affected area
  • warm skin in the area of the clot
  • redness of your skin, particularly at the back of your leg, below your knee.

If not treated, the DVT can develop into a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot which has come away from its original site and become lodged in one of your lungs) which is a much more serious condition and would require urgent investigation and emergency treatment.

Preventing DVT during travel

There are many ways that people use to prevent blood clots from forming during their long-haul flight. Doctors tend to prescribe high-risk patients blood-thinning drugs to lessen the risk of clotting, or compression/flight socks which apply gentle pressure to the ankle to help improve blood flow, reducing the risk of deep vein thrombosis and leg swelling.

As blood oxygen saturation levels drop between 5-10% when in flight, people with lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or cardiovascular disease, you may need supplemental oxygen to help, even if you don’t normally use it. Consult your doctor before you depart on your flight, as if you are in need of oxygen, airlines require advanced notice.

If you are planning a long flight:

  • Make sure you wear loose comfortable clothes that don’t restrict you or your blood flow
  • Store your luggage overhead so you have room to stretch out your legs as far as possible
  • Walk around whenever you can
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Make sure you don’t consume any alcohol or take sleeping pills as they can promote inactivity, increasing the risk of DVT

Exercises you can do to help prevent clots forming include raising your heels, keeping your toes on the floor and then bring them down. Repeat this action ten times every thirty minutes, or more often if you’d like.

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