Summer is officially here, so don’t mind us while we pour ourselves a glass of rosé and start packing our bags for our next weekend trip (cue the palm tree emoji, please). But there is a dangerous drawback of traveling that you may not be aware of: Being immobile for a long time, such as during a flight, can increase your risk of developing a life-threatening blood clot called deep vein thrombosis. And we thought de-planing with puffy, uncomfortable ankles was the least of our worries.
Deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, occurs when a blood clot forms in a vein, most commonly in the lower leg, thigh, or pelvis, but occasionally in the arm as well, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although DVT is usually easily treatable when caught quickly, the condition can become more serious if a piece of the blood clot breaks off and moves through the bloodstream to your lungs and causes a blockage to an artery there, called a pulmonary embolism. "In severe cases, this can lead to a stroke and can even be fatal," says Jacqueline Sutera, DPM, a New York-based podiatric physician and Fellow of the American College of Foot & Ankle Surgeons.
DVT is a particular risk for people on longer flights, since blood clots in the legs are more likely to develop if blood pools in the lower legs, such as when legs hang for a long period of time, says Susan L. Besser, MD, diplomate on the American Board of Obesity Medicine. Although the risk of DVT during flights is low for healthy individuals, some people have greater risk, such as those with diabetes, vascular disease, sickle cell anemia, cancer, blood clotting disorders, as well as people who are overweight, pregnant, on birth control, or smoke.
All of the experts we spoke to recommended wearing compression socks when traveling, both to minimize the risk of DVT as well as provide comfort. "Stockings apply compression to the legs to 'squeeze' the blood back out of the veins and back 'uphill',” Dr. Besser tells Health. Plus, not only do compression socks work to reduce the swelling caused by prolonged sitting, but they also "may reduce discomfort for those with varicose veins," says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center.
Wearing compression socks is one preventative measure, but there are other ways to protect yourself from DVT, too. Don’t cross your legs when you’re flying, and make sure to move your feet and wiggle your toes every now and then while in your seat. Dr. Sutera suggests avoiding alcohol during a flight, as this causes dehydration, and instead just drink water. The best thing you can do, though, is to get up, stretch your legs, and take a walk up and down the aisle every hour.
Whether you’ve booked a short domestic escape or an international long haul, we recommend stashing a pair of compression socks in your carry on. You can find them in most running shops or drugstores, but we love these basic gray ones in supersoft merino wool ($ 22; amazon.com). Another great option: This bestselling value pack of three pairs for $ 28, which come in a slew of fun colors and have a whopping 7,000 Amazon reviews. Now, you can approach your summer travels with total peace of mind.