Preventing DVT when you travel

Stretching on a plane

If you're travelling on a long-haul flight, there are several ways you can reduce your risk of getting deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

DVT high-risk factors:

  • history of DVT or pulmonary embolism
  • cancer
  • stroke
  • heart disease
  • inherited tendency to clot (thrombophilia)
  • recent surgery (pelvic region or legs)
  • obesity
  • pregnancy
  • hormone replacement therapy

If you think you have a risk of developing DVT, see your GP before you travel.

Travel-related deep vein thrombosis was first reported in 1954 in a 54-year-old doctor who developed a blood clot following a 14-hour flight.

The condition was soon dubbed "economy class syndrome" by researchers, who believed that there was a link between DVT and long-haul air travel in cramped conditions.

The actual number of people who get DVT from travelling on long-haul flights is unknown and is difficult to determine, as the condition can be symptomless and may not occur for some time after travel.

However, there is some evidence to suggest that certain groups of people, such as pregnant women or anyone who has had a stroke, are at increased risk of developing DVT on flights of eight hours or more.

DVT occurs when blood flows too slowly through the veins. The blood forms a clot that blocks up deep veins, usually in the legs. 

DVT doesn’t generally have any immediate symptoms, making it difficult to spot. However, typical signs include a swollen or painful calf or thigh, paleness and increased heat around the affected area.

If left untreated, people with DVT are at risk of developing a pulmonary embolism, when part of the blood clot breaks away and travels to the lung, which can be fatal.

Read a traveller's experience of getting DVT from flying.

Flight socks

  • Flight socks are recommended for people at high or moderate risk of DVT.
  • They should be worn throughout the flight.
  • Use below-knee graduated stockings with an appropriate compression.
  • Class 1 stockings (exerting a pressure of 14-17 mmHg at the ankle) are generally sufficient.
  • Get advice from a health professional (doctor, nurse or pharmacist) on correct size and fitting.

Before you travel

If you think you have a high risk of developing DVT, see your GP before you travel.

You may be prescribed blood-thinning drugs to lessen the risk of your blood clotting, or compression stockings (also called flight socks).

Studies have concluded that airline passengers who wear compression stockings during flights of four hours or more can significantly reduce their risk of DVT as well as leg swelling (oedema).

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 (exerting a pressure of 14-17 mmHg at the ankle) are generally sufficient.

It's vital that compression stockings are measured and worn correctly. Ill-fitting stockings could further increase the risk of DVT.

Flight socks are available from pharmacies, airports and many retail outlets. Take advice on size and proper fitting from a pharmacist or other health professional.

Recovering from DVT

If you have recently had DVT you are probably taking medication, such as warfarin, to prevent the formation of blood clots.

If that's the case then your risk of developing DVT is low and there is no reason why you can't travel, including long-haul.

However, if you're still in the recovery phase, you should get the all-clear from your consultant before travelling. You should also follow the general DVT prevention advice for high-risk travellers listed below.

While you're travelling

If you are planning a long-distance plane, train or car journey, ensure that you:

  • Wear loose, comfortable clothes.
  • Consider buying flight socks (compression stockings).
  • Store luggage overhead so you have room to stretch out your legs.
  • Do anti-DVT exercises. Raise your heels, keeping your toes on the floor, then bring them down. Do this 10 times. Now raise and lower your toes 10 times. Do it at least every half an hour (you can do it more often if you like).
  • Walk around whenever you can.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Don’t drink alcohol or take sleeping pills.

Page last reviewed: 26/05/2014

Next review due: 26/05/2016

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Comments

The 7 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Heddois said on 09 July 2013

Really though, it comes down to this. If you can afford it, fly club class and get more leg room for a healthier hip and knee angle.

If you can't afford it, and many of us can't, fly short-haul only, which still gives you much of Europe.

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Green Day said on 14 July 2012

I got DVT from traveling on airplanes and my doctors grounded me. I fought and finally got it covered under workers compensation saving me $10's of thousands for treatment and drugs. Fight your employers insurance company too.
Now here is a life-saving tip. You must wear your compression socks. But they are expensive and people tend not to do so because they have only a few pair and they get dirty.
Instead of putting them in the dirty clothes, throw them in the bottom of your shower. When you take a shower the next day make sure the soap from you goes on them and work it in with your feet. Then rinse them with the shower, squeeze them out, and throw them in the sink. When you get out, hang them on the towel rack to dry. This way you will always have clean socks, even if you have only two pair.

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Steven Shukor said on 15 December 2010

@Mike_Wiltshire

Thanks for your comment. I've updated the article with travel advice for people recovering from DVT.

Steven, Live Well editor

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Mike_Wiltshire said on 28 October 2010

A relative has recently been diagnosed with a DVT and as his daughter is in the USA we wondered whether he could fly again. He is currently being treated as an in-patient in a UK hospital. But there is no advice I can find here for travelling after having a DVT. Prevention, diagnosos and treatment are important but life goes on so why no advice for such travellers?
Can he or should he consider flying again? If he can, what measures should he take to minimise his risk of another event or ensure his condition is not made worse by any flights.
Can someone please cover this very important topic.

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Julieanne said on 29 July 2008

I have protein c deficiency (genetic thrombophilia) and have always avoided air travel of more than 4 hours
and worn flight sox's

As it's a genetic condition ..therefore not our fault..should we be penalised when it comes to travel insurance?

I am awaiting clinically measured pressure stockings

And I agree with Gordon...how about raising the general awarness of Thrombophilia? :)

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Anonymous said on 30 May 2008

You mention perhaps wearing compression stockings but don't say what compression banding they should be! NICE guidelines are very prescriptive about pressures to be effective a lot of socks/Stockings sold as flight stockings DO NOT MEET thses recommendatioons and are therefore inaffective. MAKE SURE YOU BUY CORRECT PRESSURE SOCKS AS THEY CAN DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD!!!

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Gordon said on 22 May 2008

Having read your article re DVT I wonder if you have considered raising awareness regarding Thrombophilia

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