While traveling by plane is certainly convenient, it doesn’t come without its own set of challenges. Economy seats on planes can leave you locked in place (literally) with little to no room to move around. Couple this with connecting or layover flights or long flights, and an entire travel day can go by without you moving your legs at all! If you’ve noticed your feet swelling after flying — don’t panic yet.
Foot and leg swelling during travel is uncomfortable and annoying, yet quite common. But is it cause for concern or simply an annoyance? Understanding why swelling occurs during travel and what to do about it is important to prevent circulation problems. Below, we’ll dive into what you need to know about travel swelling and travel tips to help you prevent this uncomfortable sensation next time you fly.
Traveling at airports can be hectic — which means you’re likely to be thinking more about checking your bags, finding your gate, and printing your boarding passes for your travel. Once you’re finally aboard your flight and taken off, you’ll quickly realize there is no move around at all. The lack of movement when flying is the most common reason your feet, ankles, or legs may swell. By sitting for prolonged periods and having your feet on the floor, blood begins to pool in the legs, which causes this swelling (also known as edema). During travel, you might feel cramping or discomfort in your legs, but usually, you won’t notice the swelling until later or the day after flying.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the seated position of your legs while sitting on an airplane can also cause increased pressure in the veins in your legs. As pressure builds, especially on longer-duration flights, swelling can worsen as blood moves into the surrounding tissues. The longer you are sitting without movement, the more gravity will begin to pull the fluid down to your ankles or feet. One study even found that nearly 97% of people who fly on flights that are longer than seven hours experienced some form of edema in the feet, legs, or ankles.
Although longer flights are usually the culprit, even short flights, such as two or three-hour flights, can cause swelling in some people.
- Changes in exercise habits
- Changes in water intake
- Changes in food consumption
The most common reason for feet swelling after flying is simply the lack of movement. But this is not always the sole reason. During a hectic travel day, you’re off of your normal routine — which means changes in exercise habits, water intake, and food consumption. Perhaps you’re not drinking as much water as you would at home (or avoiding expensive airport bottled water) or consuming salty processed food at airport restaurants or food courts. Or maybe you’ve skipped your morning workout to catch your flight. All of these other contributing factors can cause or worsen swelling after flying as well.
Experiencing swelling in your ankles, feet, or legs after travel is usually just an annoyance and mostly harmless — yet that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention to it. While uncommon, some cases of foot or leg swelling from flying could be a sign of another medical condition known as Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). The lack of movement for extended periods and reduced blood flow in the veins can cause this condition to manifest.
Unlike harmless edema from long flights, a DVT often causes painful legs, redness around the ankle or foot, or skin that is warm to the touch. A DVT can also cause swelling in only one leg, whereas harmless flying edema is likely to cause swelling in both legs equally. Travel edema should resolve within a day or two at most. If you suspect your swelling may be a DVT, seek medical attention right away.
Feet or leg swelling after flying is inconvenient, but it’s certainly not inevitable. There are several travel tips you can implement before, during, and after your flight to reduce the severity of your swelling. Take note for the next time you travel!
Drinking plenty of water is one simple yet effective way to help you manage foot swelling. Swelling can cause your body to hold onto excessive fluids, which is worse when you are dehydrated. Drink plenty of water before, during, and after your flight to stay hydrated and prevent your body from holding onto more fluid than necessary.
Compression socks, often worn by healthcare workers, are also useful to help manage swelling on long travel days. These socks (also called stockings) help to improve blood flow in the lower extremities and thereby reduce edema.
Stretch legs whenever possible
Have time in between a layover? Move around and stretch your legs as much as you can in between flights. If you only have one long flight, try to book an aisle seat, which can allow you to get up and move around periodically. Standing or even walking to the bathroom throughout the flight can help get the blood in your legs moving.
All in all, feet swelling after flying is an annoyance but is usually not cause for concern. By understanding the reason it occurs in the first place, you can tweak your travel habits to help combat swelling and reduce the severity. The more you fly, the better you’ll get at remembering these edema prevention tips.
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