Travel and Blood Clots: Should You Be Worried?

Staying healthy while traveling is important, especially in today’s world. Travel has become more accessible than ever due to a strong U.S. economy and airfare deals. The more we travel, the more we have to consider the health risks of travel. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) website lists common health travel concerns. These include things like medications, jet lag, mental health, bug bites, etc. One of the concerns on the list is Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) and Pulmonary Embolism (PE). When I travel, I know this is a risk, but I always wonder, how much of a risk is it?

What is a DVT?

A DVT is a blood clot that is formed in a large vein. This blood clot can block blood flow through the vein. The symptoms of a DVT is swelling, heat, redness, and/or pain in the arm or leg. A PE can occur when the clot breaks off and travels to the lung blocking blood flow in an artery. Symptoms could include chest pain, coughing up blood, a fast heartbeat, and/or difficulty breathing.

Are you at risk for a DVT?

The risk for a DVT depends on certain factors. Blood will clot with lack of circulation and with certain existing problems. The CDC advises about a general risk for DVT while traveling and with certain conditions. If you are traveling by plane, bus or train, your risk is increased by the length of your travel, how dehydrated you are, and by how little you move (which helps circulate your blood).

Your risk also increased with the following conditions:

  • A previous blood clot
  • A family history of blood clots
  • a known clotting disorder
  • Recent surgery, hospitalization, or injury
  • Using estrogen-containing birth control or hormone replacement therapy
  • Current or recent pregnancy (talk to your doctor about travel)
  • Older age (risk increases after 40)
  • Obesity
  • Active cancer (or undergoing chemotherapy)
  • Other serious illnesses (talk to your doctor about travel risks)
  • Any limitations in movement (casts, disabilities)

How do you prevent a DVT?

There are a few things you can do for DVT prevention:

  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol to stay hydrated
  • Get up and move around every 2-3 hours if possible. If driving, make frequent stops (you will have to if you stay hydrated!)
  • Do lower leg exercises in your seat. Raise and lower your heels while keeping your toes on the floor or raise and lower your toes while keeping your heels on the floor.
  • Compression socks: In a Cochrane review (expert database for organizing scientific evidence) on DVT with air travel that lasts 5 hours or more showed a decrease in symptomless DVTs after flying. They help circulation in general, so if you get swelling in your feet while traveling, these could help. I find that my feet don’t get cold on flights when I wear them (I am always cold on the plane).
  • Medication for prevention of blood clots for certain problems (not common)

Where can I get compression socks?

They can be easily found online or at health or uniform stores (nurses wear them for work). They usually cost around $20 but they are a good investment and you won’t be wearing them every day. But when you are shopping for compression socks, you want ones that are going to work for you. They are usually a bit of work to put on and should be long enough to go up until just below your knee. They shouldn’t fall down when you walk. They should fit snug for the whole flight and shouldn’t loosen later in the flight.

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