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Warning: Long Airplane Flights May Be Dangerous to Your Health

Posted Nov 17 2008 11:44pm

Flying on an airplane these days may be more than claustrophobic - for some individuals it may be deadly. In an effort to maximize their earnings, airlines are adding more seats to aircraft and packing in as many passengers as possible, reducing what little leg room used to be available. As a result, a dangerous condition known as Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), or more commonly as “Economy Class Syndrome” is becoming increasingly common.

Our bodies are designed to move - not to sit for hours on end, traveling to opposite ends of the earth. But in our fast-paced, industrialized culture, we spend much of our time sitting on our biggest muscle groups - our buttocks and legs. The lack of movement on airplanes restricts the circulation of blood through the body, which can lead to the pooling of blood and the formation of clots in the veins of legs and feet. These clots, which are usually absorbed back into the bloodstream, can break away and travel to your heart and lungs, blocking blood flow and resulting in a debilitating or even fatal stroke.

Warning Signs and Treatment

The warning signs of DVT (including pain, warmth and swelling of the legs and shortness of breath) are brief but in most fatal cases victims experienced sudden death upon landing at their destination. Other victims may mistake these symptoms for something else and not seek medical attention after their flight lands, possibly leading to deadly consequences. Usually blood clots are reabsorbed into the bloodstream, but if necessary drugs can be used to dissolve them and prevent future clots from forming. Doctors may also resort to emergency surgery if a blood clot damages the lungs or heart.


Researchers at the Hospital Pasteur in Nice, France found that travelers who sit for more than five hours on airplanes are more likely to develop clots than non-travelers. A Japanese study reported that an average of three people die each year from DVT at the Narita Airport in Tokyo and as many as 150 are successfully treated for the condition. Heathrow Airport in London reported that on average a passenger per month dies from DVT, with 30 passengers having died in the past three years, most of them within minutes of landing.

Who’s at Risk?

Certain populations are at greater risk for developing DVT. These include the elderly, pregnant women, smokers, overweight people, tall people, those with cardiovascular conditions and diabetes and women taking either birth control pills or hormone therapy.

In the Japanese Study, the average age of victims was 64. As we age, circulation of blood throughout the body is not as efficient. Furthermore, many older people have compounding circulatory conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. There was, however, a case reported from Heathrow of an apparently healthy 28-year-old Australian woman who died upon landing after a 20-hour flight. A blood clot formed which in her foot and traveled to her heart with deadly consequences. So it’s not just older adults who need to be aware of DVT. Taking estrogen, either in the form of birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy increases women’s risk of clotting. Tall and overweight people are more at risk because their heart already has to work harder to keep their blood pumping throughout their bodies. Many diabetics already have compromised circulation so they may also be at greater risk for DVT.


There are several preventative measures you can take, including:

1. Keep moving: Get up at least every hour, more often if possible. Exercise in your seat and massage your feet and lower legs. Try the following exercise: alternate pointing and flexing your toes approximately 20 times every one to two hours.

2. Stay hydrated: Drinking a lot of water not only keeps the blood from thickening (which happens when you get dehydrated), it also makes you have to get up and use the restroom on a regular basis. Stay away from alcoholic and caffeinated beverages, however, as they are diuretics and can dehydrate you.

3. Wear compression socks and loose clothing. A void clothing with tight elastic bands, particularly below the knees. Compression socks or hosiery, which keep blood from stagnating in the lower legs and improve circulation, are available at drug stores for about $15. RXFIT Travel Socks can be purchased on-line for $9.95 with free shipping. Check out their website at

4. Lose weight and/or stop smoking.

5. If driving long distances, stop often to stretch and walk.

6. Don’t cross your legs, which can restrict blood flow.

7. If you fall into a high-risk category, you may want to consult your doctor about taking a low-dosage aspirin to thin your blood.

8. Avoid flying within 24 hours of scuba diving.

Bottom Line

Prolonged periods of inactivity are not only uncomfortable; they also compromise your circulation, raising the potential of the formation of deadly blood clots. Long flights, cross-country cartrips, even sitting for long periods in can lead to clots in individuals already at risk. So keep moving if when you’re confined to a seat. Get up as often as you can, exercise in your seat if possible and take necessary precautions with the advice of your doctor (such as baby aspirin), if you fall into a high-risk group.

Be Well and Bon Voyage,


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