The health risks of flying and how to reduce them

Deep vein thrombosis can affect all ages, says Lucy Maddox.    

It’s summer holiday season and while jetting off somewhere sunny is all about fun and relaxation, planes can come with their own set of health risks.

The first to spring to mind is deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot that develops in a deep vein, usually in the leg. It can occur on dry land, but is associated with flying, mainly long-haul flights, due to sitting in one position for so long.

Prolonged sitting, say experts, adds to the static load on our musculoskeletal system, and prevents effective circulation of blood through your body.

However, surely this is something you only need to worry about once you reach a certain age? Actually no. Deep vein thrombosis affects younger people too.

Actually, while it is more common in older age groups, it affects around one in every 1,000 people, mostly over-40s. It can affect younger people, and there are some specific risk factors that may apply to younger women.

The chances of developing a blood clot on a flight are slim, so there’s no need to panic.

Vascular expert professor Mark Whiteley, says: “While it’s true that as you age and become less active you have a slightly higher risk of blood clots, some of the patients we see are in their 20s and 30s.

While women have an increased chance of developing blood clots due to lifestyle factors such as pregnancy, or taking birth control, research has found men have a higher rate of developing deep vein thrombosis naturally.”

The contraceptive pill or pregnancy hormones can put you at a higher risk. Pregnancy can be associated with a greater risk, due to the weight of the baby reducing blood flow to the legs. Plus, hormones and blood composition change during pregnancy, which can influence clotting.

There are warnings that the combined contraceptive pill can increase the risk of deep vein thrombosis due to the levels of oestrogen in the pill, and oestrogen can cause the blood to clot more easily.

However, not all birth-control pills are linked with any increased risk, and certain individuals may still be more likely to develop a clot, such as people who are overweight or have a history of blood clots.

Having a condition or treatment that can cause your blood to clot more easily, such as cancer (and chemotherapy and radiotherapy), heart and lung disease or inflammatory bowel disease, should also be considered as factors in the possibility of developing the illness.

If you’re concerned or unsure, speak to your GP for advice.

Warning signs can include pain, swelling, tenderness, a heavy ache in the affected area and warm, red skin. Often the pain can become more severe when you bend your foot upwards towards the knee.

If you notice any possible symptoms, it’s important to get it checked with a medical professional as soon as possible. If a blood clot is diagnosed, you may need anticoagulant medicine to reduce further clotting and stop any existing clots getting bigger.

n Compression socks can help speed up blood flow in the veins, which can cut the risk of clots, and are an especially good idea on long-haul flights.

n Try not to stay in your seat in one position for too long either — have a stretch and move your feet and legs frequently, even when you’re stuck in your chair.

n Stopping smoking and keeping generally fit and healthy helps too.


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