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Can You Avoid Blood Clots on a Long Flight?

Sitting still for a long time, as trans-oceanic air passengers must, increases the risk for dangerous blood clots in the legs.

Blood clots in the veins of the legs can be serious. Not only do they cause swelling, inflammation and pain in the affected leg, but they can also break loose and lodge in the lung. Blood clots in the lung are known as pulmonary embolisms and they can compromise breathing. A pulmonary embolism may be life threatening, so it makes sense to avoid blood clots whenever possible.

One behavior that can raise the risk for this complication is sitting still for a long time. A long flight of five hours or more fits this bill. At one time, it was termed “economy-class syndrome” because the per-passenger space in the economy class compartment of the airplane is especially limited. However, any passenger who sits still for a long time,whether in a plane, train, automobile or even a bus, can develop blood clots as a result.

Avoiding Bloot Clots on a Long Flight:

Q. My wife and I will be flying to Europe in a couple of weeks. We’re concerned about the possibility of blood clots in our legs.

Air passengers are hardly allowed to walk around during the flight any more. Even standing for more than a few minutes is discouraged. Seats only recline a little bit so it is hard to sleep. Is there anything we can do to reduce our risk?

A. There are a few things that will help. Make sure you wear compression hose for the flight. That can lower the risk of a clot.

In addition, learn foot and leg exercises that can be done while seated, such as ankle circles, foot lifts and knee raises. These help keep the blood in your legs from pooling without creating too much annoyance for the passengers seated around you.

What About Aspirin?

One other option is aspirin. For years, experts told us that aspirin was ineffective against blood clot formation in veins. A study in the European Journal of Internal Medicine (Jan. 2014) contradicted that belief, however. Low-dose aspirin reduces the likelihood of clot formation by as much as 30 percent in high-risk patients.

Ask your physician if aspirin would be safe for you and your wife during your flight. And enjoy your visit in Europe!

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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