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Summer travel: Protect yourself against blood clots

Written By: Laura Frnka-Davis, UT Physicians | Updated: June 9, 2023
Family on airplane headed for vacation

Whether it is in the air or another transportation option, an expert offers tips on how to avoid the possibility of blood clots.

Summer travel can mean long flights or hours spent in the car to reach your final destination. If you are prone to developing deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism, there are some steps you can take to prevent a health emergency.

A life-threatening condition, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) happens when a blood clot forms in one or more deep veins within your body. It can cause leg pain or swelling or no symptoms at all. If a blood clot breaks loose, it can travel to your lungs and block your blood flow, which is a pulmonary embolism (PE).

Certain groups of people are more prone to developing DVT and PE. You may be a greater risk if you:

  • Are over the age of 40
  • Have a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30
  • Have undergone surgery in the past three months
  • Use estrogen-containing contraceptives or are on hormone replacement therapies
  • Are pregnant or have given birth in the last three months
  • Have experienced blood clots previously or have a family history of them
  • Are currently undergoing active cancer treatment
  • Have limited mobility due to a cast or a walking boot
  • Have varicose veins
Sheila Coogan, M.D.
Sheila Coogan, M.D.

“During the summer travel season, many patients ask about the potential of developing DVT and PE associated with traveling long distances,” said Sheila Coogan, MD, a vascular surgeon with UT Physicians and a professor at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. “If you are worried about developing these conditions while traveling, you can take several proactive measures to reduce some of your anxiety.”

Wear Compression Socks

Compression garments such as socks or support stockings can prevent DVT and PE from developing because they are designed to squeeze your legs to increase circulation and steadily control swelling. This pressure from the stockings tightens the veins in the legs and helps prevent the blood from pooling.  

“Compression socks offer an effective way to keep the blood flowing to and from the heart,” Coogan said. “There also is some evidence to support the idea that wearing them may reduce the uncomfortable symptoms of edema or swelling caused by excess fluid trapped in your body’s tissues. In addition, compression socks may help with muscle fatigue.”

Drink up

Keeping hydrated is another key to avoiding a blood clot while traveling. 

“When you become dehydrated, your blood vessels narrow, and your blood tends to thicken, which can lead to developing a blood clot,” Coogan said. 

Because you may not always have access to water at all points on your journey, it’s essential to plan. For example, purchase a bottle of water with you to take on the plane, or make sure you have a refillable bottle you can easily access in the car. 

Coogan added that it’s best to choose water instead of alcohol or sugary drinks, which can lead to dehydration. 

Stretch and move around

Regardless of your mode of transportation, Coogan recommends taking breaks for stretching and walking to keep the blood moving.

“This is particularly important when traveling by plane since air travel is more closely linked to developing DVT and PE due to the lower oxygen levels,” Coogan said. “For this reason, especially if you are traveling for long distances of six hours or more, it’s important to move around if you can every two to three hours or consider doing leg exercises in your seat.”

Take your medications as prescribed

You’re definitely out of your routine and daily habits when traveling. Even so, you should make a point to take your regular medications as prescribed – especially anticoagulants (blood thinners) or aspirin, which are given to reduce the risk of blood clots.

“If your doctor has not recommended that you take aspirin daily, it’s not suggested that you take it when you travel to prevent blood clots,” Coogan said. “On the other hand, if you do take prescribed blood thinners, you should feel safe traveling.”

While none of the above recommendations will cut your risk of developing DVT and PE entirely, following them can help and hopefully offer some peace of mind.

“Knowing your risk and taking steps to reduce the likelihood of developing a blood clot while traveling will help ensure you have a happy and healthy experience,” said Coogan.

Lastly, the medical community worldwide is capable of managing DVT. If you are traveling and notice that only one leg is swollen, seek help from a medical facility. Getting help early has a low likelihood of interrupting your trip and may prevent a far worse problem.

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.