Women on Birth Control Pills Should Take Extra Caution on Long Airplane Flights

February 15, 2012 drdarria 0 Comments

A new set of expert guidelines was released last week regarding airplane travel and blood clots. While the authors failed to give me a medical reason for which I must start flying first class(), there were some great lessons for preventing leg clots, otherwise called “Deep Venous Thrombosis” (DVT) during your travels.

What is a DVT? A DVT occurs when a deep vein in your leg is blocked by a blood clot. If untreated, up to 50% of DVTs can progress to a blood clot in the lung (Pulmonary Embolism), which can be fatal.

What are the symptoms of a DVT? Classic symptoms of a DVT include a single leg that is swollen, red, painful, and warm. However, some can have no symptoms, and the patient does not even realize that they have a DVT until they come to the emergency department with symptoms of a pulmonary embolism.

Read on for seven tips to keep you safer during airplane travel:

(1) Authors of the study, which was published in a recent issue of Chest, noted that although the absolute numbers of DVTs related to air travel are small (given the millions that travel yearly), there is definitely an increased risk. They noted that the risk of DVT is greatest in flights over eight hours, with an 18% higher risk for each two-hour increase.

(2) Sitting in economy class does not worsen your risk for DVT. However, sitting in the window seat (because you are less likely to get up out of your seat and walk around) may.

(3) Pregnancy or oral contraceptive use, in addition to having a prior DVT, recent surgery/trauma, active cancer, older age, obesity, or a genetic clotting disorder, all increase your risk. Passengers with any of these conditions should take some of the precautions listed below.

(4) This does NOT mean that you should stop your birth control pill. Remember, the absolute number of DVTs is small—and it’s also a fact that being pregnant applies a greater risk for DVT than just taking a birth control pill. In addition, some studies have shown that different kinds of birth control pills have different risks, with some having less risk than others. This is a complicated issue, and one that you should discuss with your doctor to make sure that you are on the pill that is best for you. I’ll be focusing one of our future TV segments (coming soon! First filming is February 21) on this topic, so stay tuned for that.

(5) Remember, smoking increases your risk of clots anywhere in your body, including DVT and pulmonary embolism. It doesn’t matter if your flight is two, four, or twenty-four hours—if you smoke, you’ve significantly increased your risk. Period.

(6) In people at higher risk for DVT (the groups in #3), the authors suggest wearing compression stockings (I know, I know, not fabulous fashion…but neither is a leg clot) that provide 15-30mm Hg compression at the ankle. These can be found online and in most medical supply stores.

(7) Although there is not data from studies, the authors also suggested getting up and walking around frequently (preferably ever hour or so), drinking non-alcoholic beverages, and not wearing clothes that caused significant compression around the waist. If you’re in a middle/window seat and cannot get out that frequently, I always suggest doing seated heel raises: with your toe planted on the ground, raise your heel, rotate clockwise for a circle, then counter-clockwise, and repeat 10 times. The American Physical Therapy association recommends lifting your knees up to the ceiling while you are sitting. In addition, make sure to shift positions frequently to avoid compressing one area for too long.

Clots in your leg and lung can be devastating, but with a little knowledge and forethought, you can reduce your risk for these without too much hassle.

Take care and happy traveling!

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