Traveling over long distances has been the norm in the world for quite some time now. It’s hard to imagine that a trip today from New York to Tel Aviv that takes about 10 hours took about two weeks by boat.  Whether for business or pleasure, many more people are traveling from one corner of the world to the next.  We also know that the longer you are sitting in a plane, or even a car or train, the more risk there is to your health. When it comes to travel, it seems that four hours is the dividing line.  Let’s look at some rare but inherent dangers of traveling on trips, particularly in airplanes for flights four hours or more.

Deep Vein Thrombosis

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), more than 300 million people travel on long-distance flights (generally more than four hours) each year. Blood clots, also called deep vein thrombosis (DVT), can be a serious risk for some long-distance travelers. Anyone traveling more than four hours, whether by air, car, bus, or train, can be at risk for blood clots. The risk of DVT from travel is small. Research studies suggest that there is about one DVT for every 4,656 flights that last for four hours or more. The longer the flight, the more likely one is to develop a DVT.  Again, the risk is small, but we have to pay attention to make sure we aren’t that one person.

Blood clots can form in the deep veins (veins below the surface that are not visible through the skin) of your legs during travel because you are sitting still in a confined space for a long period of time. The longer you are immobile, the greater your risk of developing a blood clot. Many times the blood clot will dissolve on its own. However, a serious health problem can occur when a part of the blood clot breaks off and travels to the lungs causing a blockage. This is called a pulmonary embolism, and it may be fatal.

There are things you can do to protect your health and keep your risk of a blood clot during a long-distance trip to a minimum.

Who is at risk?

Anyone may develop a DVT on a long journey but the following increases the risk:

  • Obesity
  • Having had an operation in the previous two months
  • Pregnancy
  • Having had a DVT or pulmonary embolism (PE) before. Having a close relative who has had a DVT or PE
  • Being on the combined oral contraceptive pill (COCP) or hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
  • Being very tall or very short
  • Cancer
  • Some blood clotting disorders
  • Having a broken leg in a cast
  • Recent severe illness such as pneumonia, heart failure or a heart attack

If you think you have a risk of DVT, see your GP before you travel.  Don’t leave it until the last minute in case you need to buy medication, compression stockings or anything else for your flight.   Wearing compression stockings during flights of four hours or more can significantly reduce your risk of DVT, as well as leg swelling (edema). The below-knee stockings apply gentle pressure to the ankle to help blood flow. They come in a variety of sizes and there are also different levels of compression. Class 1 stockings are generally sufficient. It’s important that compression stockings are measured and worn correctly. Ill-fitting stockings could further increase the risk of DVT.

Taking preventative actions

Here are things you can actively do to help prevent a DVT:

  • Wear loose, comfortable clothes
  • Exercise before your flight, especially walking and stretching
  • Walk around whenever you can during your flight
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Don’t drink alcohol or take sleeping pills

To avoid jet lag

Upon boarding the plane, change your watch to the destination time zone and try to shut out noise on the plane.
Blindfolds and earplugs are commonly used for that purpose. When you arrive at your destination, don’t eat a large meal and for the first few days, getting sunlight is imperative.  Daylight is a powerful stimulant for regulating the biological clock while staying indoors worsens jet lag.

I have also found that eating on airplanes, particularly the meals they serve, isn’t a good idea.  Their meals are full of unhealthy fats and other food additives that aren’t good for you.  Also keep in mind that you are going to be sitting most of the time for a period of many hours and henceforth not using your calories.  Bring a few healthy snacks for yourself, but keep eating to a minimum.

When you arrive at your destination, keep in mind all of the rules for being able to enjoy your time away while keeping your health intact.  Either way you have to be extremely vigilant.  Usually you will be having less control over what and when you will be eating; so it’s easy to see why you have to plan and have realistic goals vis-a-vis your health and weight loss while away.  Maintaining your weight is usually a realistic goal as opposed to trying to lose while traveling.

Over the last 50 years or so, traveling over far distances is something that has manifested itself as pretty normal.  But nevertheless, there can be risk involved.  At the same time, there are many things we can do to keep the risks down.  Maintaining a healthy lifestyle through good eating and exercise, will lower your risk of any blood clot, anytime.

Although traveling far away can be challenging, by following our advice, you can do damage control and enjoy your vacation or business trip. Keep your health in mind and your goals reasonable during trips.  It will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”