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How to tell if you're getting a blood clot while flying

Nov. 21, 2020
6 min read
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Travelers have never been more aware of their health and safety when flying. But for some people, the novel coronavirus isn't the only health risk they're worried about on airplanes.

According to the National Blood Clot Alliance, an average of 274 people die from blood clots every day and 600,000 nonfatal blood clots occur every year. Air travel can increase this risk as you're sitting for long periods with little room to move your legs. This can cause a particular type of blood clot called deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

Sitting in the same position for a long period of time, like on an airplane, can be detrimental to your health. (Photo by Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images)
Sitting in the same position for a long time, like on an airplane, can be detrimental to your health. (Photo by Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images)

"DVT’s are more likely to form when there is venous stasis, which means that the blood is pooling in the veins," Dr. Mehmet Oz (of "The Dr. Oz Show") told The Points Guy. "This is more likely to happen in people who are sedentary for long periods, like on a long plane ride, because part of the way the blood in the leg veins gets back up to the heart is when muscles contract."

In 2018, Dr. Rajiv Narula, MD — founder of the International Travel Health Consultants — told TPG that “on flights more than eight hours, [there’s an] increased risk of DVT.” And certain studies say this condition can occur on flights as short as four hours.

While the condition can resolve itself, in some cases people experience a pulmonary embolism: when the clot travels to the lungs and blocks blood flow there. The blocked blood flow in the lung prevents the body from getting oxygen.

So, how can you tell if you have a blood clot on a plane? We chatted with a couple of experts to learn the symptoms, find out who is most susceptible and what to do if you develop one during a flight.

Related: It’s flu season — Here’s how to avoid getting sick on a plane

Know if you’re at risk

According to Dr. Narula, travelers with certain “underlying medical issues” are typically more prone to DVT.

Several factors can make a person more susceptible to developing a blood clot.

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"Things that put you at risk for blood clots include certain genetic clotting disorders, being immobilized because of surgery or injury, chronic diseases like heart failure and cancer, smoking and older age," said Dr. Oz.

Different thing can cause blood clots in different people. (Photo by Scottshotz / Getty Images)
Different thing can cause blood clots depending on your demographic. (Photo by Scottshotz / Getty Images)

Dr. Nathan Favini, medical lead at Forward, a new technology-based healthcare startup, added that oral birth control pills and pregnancy also make a blood clot more likely. "Estrogen is thought to be the cause," he said. "So, forms of birth control that don’t contain estrogen, like IUDs, are safer in this regard."

If you fall into one of these categories, you should take extra precautions to help prevent blood clots and be aware if you start to develop any symptoms.

Related: What happens if you get sick during a flight?

Symptoms of a blood clot

Knowing you have a blood clot can be tricky, as you can often write off the symptoms as something else, but there are a few key warning signs to pay attention to when traveling. If you experience these symptoms, you should seek medical help immediately.

"If you develop pain, tenderness, swelling, warmth and/or redness in your legs during a flight, those may be signs of a deep vein thrombosis or blood clot," said Dr. Favini. "If you have more than one or many of those symptoms, it becomes more likely that you’re experiencing a clot."

When TPG's former social media director developed a blood clot during a six-hour flight home from Iceland, she woke up with sore and aching calves and felt dizzy, hot and light-headed.

(Photo by Jasmin Merdan / Getty Images)
Pay attention to the sensations in your legs during a flight to be safe. (Photo by Jasmin Merdan / Getty Images)

The other thing to look out for, according to Dr. Favini, is the rapid onset of shortness of breath. This can be a sign that a clot has formed in, or traveled to, your lungs.

"If you’re experiencing these symptoms, especially shortness of breath, let the staff on your airplane know right away," said Dr. Favini.

Related: I got food poisoning before my long-haul flight

How to prevent a blood clot

So, now you know what to look for if you’re developing a blood clot. But, there are certain critical steps you can take to avoid one in the first place.

"Drink lots of fluids, but not with caffeine, which makes you pee more so [there's] less fluid in your blood ... And avoid alcohol," said Dr. Oz. "Then, move around every two hours and move [your] feet like stepping on a gas pedal more frequently."

When TPG spoke to Daniel Giordano, co-founder of Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy in New York City, about movements and stretches travelers can easily perform on an airplane to promote blood circulation, Giordano said he recommends his clients travel with a device such as a Firefly knee strap. This can gently stimulate the peroneal nerve to promote circulation while performing simple exercises like, as Dr. Oz suggested, pumping your legs.

And for Dr. Narula, the key is anti-embolism socks. These knee-high stockings are specifically designed to put graduated pressure on your legs, which can improve circulation.

Additional reporting by Melanie Lieberman.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

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Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023