Perils of travel

crowded-airplane

If you’re going to be traveling long distances this summer (or any other time), here are a few things to consider:

A review of past research confirms what many experts have long believed: People who travel bear a significantly higher risk for developing potentially life-threatening blood clots in their legs. 

That risk, the analysis finds, is up to three times higher for travelers, especially males,  when compared to non-travelers. What’s more, the risk rises the longer the trip — 18 percent higher risk for every two hours of travel, and 26 percent higher risk for every two hours of airplane travel.

Known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or venous thromboembolism (VTE), this serious condition can sometimes lead to a pulmonary embolism, where a clot that forms in the leg migrates to the lungs and can cause death.

Given that by 2010 an estimated 2.5 billion passengers across the globe will be traveling by air alone, the researchers noted that any connection between DVT risk and travel could have an impact on a wide swath of the population.

If you’re traveling and you begin to feel unwell when you arrive, or even over the following week or two, and you have some symptoms for DVT, go get evaluated right away.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, DVT symptoms include swelling of the leg or along a leg vein; leg tenderness and/or pain (sometimes only when standing or moving); abnormal warmth in an affected leg, and leg redness or discoloration. Signs of a pulmonary embolism include shortness of breath or pain when breathing, as well as the coughing up of blood.

Nevertheless, Dr. Samuel Z. Goldhaber, director of the Venous Thromboembolism Research Group in the cardiovascular division of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said he puts stock in specific short-term and long-term steps any traveler can take to reduce risk.

“People need to know that much of the travel-related DVT can be prevented with common sense and a heart-healthy lifestyle,” he said. “First of all, when traveling obviously stay well-hydrated. That means on a plane, after you pass security, you should purchase extra water and drink enough of it on the flight so that you have to go to the bathroom to urinate. And if you’re traveling by car you should probably take a break every two hours, rather than trying to set a world record in terms of how fast you can get from point A to point B.”

“Beyond that, it’s also a fact that in general many of the things that increase pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis risk are exactly the same as those that increase risk for a heart attack,” Goldhaber added. “Things such as cigarette smoking, poorly controlled high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, being overweight, being immobile and not getting enough exercise. So, if you modify these risk factors you can kill two birds with one stone.”

Dress appropriately. What you wear can affect your blood circulation on long flights. “Compression stockings have been shown to decrease the risk of symptomless [silent] blood clots in the legs on long flights, but it is unknown whether they prevent serious deep vein thromboses or pulmonary emboli,” says Ken Zafren, MD, associate medical director of the Himalayan Rescue Association and a clinical assistant professor in the division of emergency medicine at Stanford University Medical Center.

Choose an aisle seat when possible. “The risk of DVT is probably lower for those who sit in an aisle seat. Elevating the feet when possible may also be helpful,” says Zafren.

Flowing
Simple leg exercises can help get your blood flowing during air travel and can help reduce your risk of developing a blood clot. Try these the next time you fly:

  • Toe points. Stretch your legs out as straight as possible in front of you. Alternate pointing your toes down toward the floor and then up toward the ceiling.
  • Ankle circles. Stretch your legs out straight in front of you. Rotate your ankles, moving your feet around in circles.

Do each exercise 10 times with each foot, and try to do them once every hour.

You should also take the opportunity to walk around the cabin as often as possible.

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