DVT can occur when you sit down without moving for more than 90 minutes
DVT can occur when you sit down without moving for more than 90 minutes

How to avoid getting deep-vein thrombosis on a long-haul flight

Everything you need to know about deep-vein thrombosis

Paul Westerman
Wednesday 27 March 2019 16:31
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Every year deep-vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism kill more people than Aids, breast cancer, prostate cancer and motoring accidents combined.

DVT is often linked to air travel but research suggests anyone who sits still for long periods of time – at work, at home or while travelling – is at risk.

Paul Westerman, a blood-clot survivor and director of RBR Active – which produces a product to improve blood flow – explains what you can do to prevent DVT.

What is DVT? It’s is a blood clot that develops within a deep vein in the body, usually in the leg.

In most cases, DVT can be treated. If it is not it can lead to a pulmonary embolism, which is fatal if left untreated.

PE occurs when the DVT breaks off and moves into the lungs, depriving the body of the oxygen and blood supply that it needs and causing permanent tissue damage.

DVT can affect anyone, of any age, at any time. Many celebrities who have suffered from DVT or PE-related incidents including tennis ace Serena Williams; cricket player Andrew Flintoff, who developed a DVT while he was recovering from a knee operation; Billy Connolly, while receiving treatment for cancer; and former foreign secretary Boris Johnson.

Is it true that flying puts you at greater risk of suffering from DVT?

Flying itself does not increase your chance of getting DVT. However, prolonged inactivity such as sitting still on a long-distance flight can increase your risk.

Normally, blood flows smoothly through the veins without clotting. Clots develop in the body when the blood cells clump together. The formation of DVT clots can be triggered by a combination of factors including:

  • reduced blood flow through the veins. This occurs when people are sedentary for 90 minutes or longer.
  • changes in the clotting mechanism of the blood. This can be caused by pregnancy, some drug treatments and genetic disposition.
  • damage to the lining of the blood vessel wall. This can occur after surgical procedures, trauma or inflammation.

How likely is it that I’ll get DVT?

It is important to be aware that people of all ages are at risk of DVT and PE – together they are known as venous thromboembolism (VTE).

However, they are most common in people aged 40 or over, those who have existing health problems, or have had surgery on the pelvis, hips or knees.

Pregnant women and new mothers, those taking the contraceptive pill or who are on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) are also at risk as are those with a family history of blood clots.

People who do not have any of these risk factors may still develop DVT because of a sedentary lifestyle. For some, this can include activities such as online gaming, time spent on social media and binge-watching.

In 2011, 20-year-old Chris Staniforth died after spending up to 12 hours at a time playing on his Xbox. And last year, a study found that computer gamers as young as 12 have suffered potentially deadly deep-vein thrombosis after becoming so absorbed in games, they hardly moved for more than three hours. The research identified a 12-year-old who had played for four hours with his legs in a kneeling position when he suffered a blood clot.

What are the symptoms?

Sadly, there may be few or no symptoms of DVT and 80 per cent of cases are “silent”. But RBR Active recently launched the #SeekHELP campaign to warn anyone who experiences heat, excessive redness, localised swelling or pain in their leg or arm to get urgent medical attention.

Symptoms of a PE include symptoms of a DVT along with the following:

  • sudden shortness of breath
  • chest pain that is sharp or stabbing; may get worse with deep breaths
  • rapid heart rate
  • unexplained cough, sometimes with bloody mucus.

Can DVT be prevented?

Keeping your weight at a healthy level, staying active and exercising regularly all helps.

You should drink plenty of water, wear loose fitting clothes and move around at regular intervals when travelling. This applies to all forms of travel, including flying.

If you have a particularly sedentary lifestyle, you should look to get up and move around every 90 minutes to get your blood moving.

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There are also products on the market to help reduce the risk, including compression stockings, which are routinely used in hospitals, and anti-coagulation medication – “blood thinners” – on prescription.

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