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Traveler's Thrombosis: When Sitting Still Can Be Deadly

What Is DVT?

 Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) (also known as venous thromboembolism) occurs when a blood clot develops in the deep veins of the legs and groin (the lower-abdomen/upper thigh areas). These deep veins are not visible at the skin's surface, and are not related to varicose veins. A clot that breaks loose and travels through the deep veins to the heart and lungs can cause severe blockage of blood flow or death.

Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

People who develop DVT don't always have symptoms. However, those who do usually experience the following symptoms in one leg or the other (rarely both):

Symptoms of DVT may include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling of a limb
  • Tenderness along the vein
  • Warmth
  • Redness, paleness, or blueness of the skin of the affected limb

Sudden, severe shortness of breath, with or without chest pain, may signal that a clot has traveled to the lungs.

DVT can be diagnosed by ultrasound imaging tests, which highlight blood flow in the veins and show clot formation. If a clot is found, blood-thinning medication to stabilize the clot and allow it to dissolve will be prescribed immediately. Hospitalization may be required for treatment and observation, and patients often take oral medication for several months afterwards, to ensure restoration of normal blood flow through the vein.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for DVT include:

  • Personal or family history of deep vein thrombosis
  • Hospitalization
  • Not moving your body for long periods of time
  • Surgery, especially involving bones or joints
  • Medical conditions, such as:
  • Obesity
  • Taking birth control pills or estrogen therapy
  • Pregnancy
  • Smoking
  • Genetic factors whether inherited or by natural changes in life can change your body protein levels

Preventing DVT While Traveling

If you are planning any kind of travel that requires sitting for long stretches of time, be sure to do the following:

  • Get up and walk around as much as possible—at least once an hour, if possible. Stand up and stretch your arms and legs in your seat if there is no room to walk.
  • Do in-seat calf exercises and heel/toe lifts frequently to keep the blood circulating.
  • Arrange optimal seating: try to sit in an area that affords you some space, such as an aisle, exit row, or bulkhead seat.
  • Stay hydrated, drink plenty of fluids, but avoid drinks that contain alcohol.
  • Avoid smoking; this is especially important if you are taking oral contraceptives.
  • Wear loose clothing and avoid tight clothing that restricts blood flow (eg, tight waistbands).
  • If you are at high risk for developing DVT, your doctor may ask you to wear below the knee compression stockings.

One cautionary note: DVT may surface after travel has been completed. If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, contact your doctor immediately.

  • National Institutes of Health

    http://www.nih.gov

  • Travelers' Health

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/

  • Health Canada

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

  • Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada

    http://www.heartandstroke.com

  • Deep vein thrombosis. DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated August 14, 2012. Accessed September 12, 2012.

  • Deep vein thrombosis. EBSCO Health Library website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthlibrary. Updated September 2011. Accessed September 12, 2012.

  • Deep vein thrombosis. HeartHealthyWomen.org website. Available at: http://www.hearthealthywomen.org/cardiovascular-disease/featured/deep-vein-thrombosis-dvt-pe.html. Accessed September 12, 2012.

  • Deep vein thrombosis & pulmonary embolism. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2012/chapter-2-the-pre-travel-consultation/deep-vein-thrombosis-and-pulmonary-embolism.htm. Updated July 1, 2011. Accessed September 12, 2012.

  • Deep vein thrombosis treatment overview. HeartHealthyWomen.org website. Available at: http://www.hearthealthywomen.org/treatment-and-recovery/pvd-treatment-and-recovery/deep-vein-thrombosis-treatment-overview.html. Accessed September 12, 2012.

  • Ferraro E, et al. Travel as a risk factor for venous thromboembolic disease. Chest . 1999; 115:440–444.

  • Focus on: Emergency ultrasound for deep vein thrombosis. American College of Emergency Physicians website. Available at: http://www.acep.org/content.aspx?id=44490. Accessed September 12, 2012.

  • Kahn SR, Lim W, Dunn AS, et al. Prevention of VTE in nonsurgical patients: Antithrombotic therapy and prevention of thrombosis, 9th ed: American College of Chest Physicians evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Chest. 2012 Feb; 141(2 Suppl):e195S-226S.