Passenger risks from deep vein thrombosis

One of the risks that passengers face, especially on long flights, is a circulation related disease called deep vein thrombosis. The Observer newspaper of the U.K. published a number of articles in January 2001 that among other things claimed that major airlines have been aware of the problem for some time. The paper also estimated that DVT could be causing up to 300 deaths per year in the U.K. from flight-related blood clots. Deep vein thrombosis, sometimes referred to as "economy class syndrome" when it occurs to airline passengers, is a risk that is faced by airline passengers on long flights. The following information provides a brief overview of the problem and advice on how to avoid this risk.

What is deep vein thrombosis?
Deep vein thrombosis is a condition where a thrombus or blood clot forms within a deep vein, typically one in the thigh or the calf. This blood clot can either partially or completely block the flow of blood in the vein. In extreme cases, this clot can break free from a vein wall and travel to the lung and block an artery. This pulmonary embolism could lead to serious injury or death. In pregnant women, this kind of embolism could lodge in the placenta and put the fetus at risk.

How do you get deep vein thrombosis?
Deep vein thrombosis is a problem that is caused by pooling of blood in the vein, which triggers blood-clotting mechanisms. Anyone who sits for long periods of time in a vehicle, movie theater, or even an office desk may develop clumps of clotted blood in the legs. Airline passengers in coach seating are particularly vulnerable because of the sometimes dense seating and limited ability to get up and move around. However, even passengers in business and first class are at risk.

What is the extent of the problem?
Precise figures are difficult to estimate since there are no national or international regulations that require that such cases be tracked. While a search of the online FAA and NTSB incident and accident records reveal no records mentioning a passenger death due to DVT, passenger deaths have been reported on occasion by various news organizations.

What are the symptoms?
Symptoms may vary widely. A mild case may have no symptoms.
When symptoms do occur, they could include the following:
- Tenderness and redness in the affected area,
- Pain and swelling in areas near the blood clot,
- Fever,
- Cramps,
- Rapid heart beat,
- Sudden, unexplained cough, and
- Joint pain and soreness.

Are you at risk?
If you have at least one of the following conditions, you may be at higher risk:
- Over the age of 60,
- Recent accident, surgery, or other trauma,
- Coronary artery disease,
- Smoking,
- Pregnancy,
- Obesity,
- Use of oral contraceptives,
- Family history of clotting problems

What can you do about it?
There are several things that you can do to reduce your risk:
- Wear clothing that may help your circulation
- Get up and move around at least once an hour,
- If you have to remain seated, flex your ankles and move your feet,
- Drink plenty of water before and during the flight,
- Limit your in-flight alcohol consumption, and
- Seek medical advice before traveling if you feel that you are at risk.
- Wearing medical compression stockings can also greatly reduce the risk.

Additional Information
British United Provident Assoc.
The Observer (U.K.)

Passenger risks from deep vein thrombosis -- Revised 10 July 2011