Scary - but preventable. Travel blogger Sherry Ott shares her experience with Deep Vein Thrombosis & what she learned from it.
The doctor sat down in the chair next to my bed and said, “It looks like you have three pulmonary emboli in your right lung. So, we’ll put you on a blood thinner…”
She continued talking, but I was still stuck on the first sentence. I was in disbelief. I was so positive that the pain in my lungs for the last week had to do with bronchitis, which I thought I had contracted on my trip to India. I refused to believe that it could be anything else.
But tests don’t lie, and I felt shiver pass through me as I realized I had just escaped death. After all, when clots move from your legs and embed themselves in your lungs as a pulmonary embolism, it can be deadly. Up to a third of pulmonary embolisms will ultimately be fatal – a sudden death situation. Somehow three of these clots had moved through my system, landing in my lungs, and here I was in Urgent Care listening to the doctor tell me how lucky I was.
Flying and Blood Clots
Most of the time I think I have the best job in the world. I travel full time and make a living as a travel blogger at Ottsworld.com. Since 2006 my work has taken me all over the world to all 7 continents. I get to hike, bike, eat, learn, and experience all the cultures of the world; it is a dream job. However, there are a few downsides to it, just like any other job. I spend a lot of time on planes, and bloggers don’t fly first class! I’m normally in those uncomfortable little economy seats crossing oceans to my next project. It’s not unusual for me to get off one long flight, be home for 5 days and then get on another to the opposite side of the world.
When we think of flying risks, we normally think about plane crashes, but those are relatively few. The real danger is Deep Vein Thrombosis or DVT. They say it is the most serious health risk you’ve never heard of. DVT is a blood clot that forms in a deep vein, usually in a leg. The clots can break off and lodge in your lungs (called a pulmonary embolism) and can be fatal. Once a clot is trapped in the lung, it can lead to blockage of blood flow and can be extremely dangerous if not treated appropriately.
The doctor and specialist felt certain that my blood clots and emboli were caused from my long-distance flight to India a few weeks earlier. It was a 14-hour flight from New York City to Delhi. On that flight I did something I rarely do – I fell asleep…hard. I had a couple glasses of wine with my dinner and promptly passed out in my economy class seat for five solid hours, not moving at all.
How Do You Know You Have DVT?
In retrospect, I had all of the symptoms, but I thought that it was just effects of the heat and pollution in India – so I wrote off all of the signs. My left calf ached, and then a few days later I started feeling a pain in my chest, developed a cough, and often felt light-headed during the trip and when I returned home.
Thinking I’d caught a virus or cold while in India, I had called my doctor’s office to get an appointment before the weekend because I couldn’t get rid of the annoying cough. In addition, my chest hurt underneath my right breast when I took in big breathes or laid down. I thought I could get in to see a doctor and get some antibiotics for whatever infection I might have. Simple.
“I think you should go to Urgent Care and have a CT Scan,” the doctor on the phone urged me. She had actually diagnosed it on the phone!
- Swelling of your leg or arm
- Pain or tenderness that you can’t explain
- Skin that is warm to the touch
- Redness of the skin
If the clots break free and turn into a pulmonary embolism, you may also experience:
- Difficulty breathing
- Faster than normal or irregular heartbeat
- Chest pain or discomfort, which usually worsens with a deep breath or coughing
- Lightheadedness or fainting
Who is Really at Risk?
We all think, “It won’t happen to me, that just happens to other people who already have health risks.” But I am a perfect example of how blood clots from flying can happen to anyone, even a 48-year-old, relatively fit person, with no health issues.
That said, there are several factors that can increase your risk of DVT:
- Age – People over 40 are more at risk.
- Sitting for long periods of time – This isn’t just a flying thing – it can be any kind of sitting for periods of greater than two hours at a time. It could be a long train or bus or car ride. But flying is the most common reason for sustained sitting.
- Recent surgery
- Women on birth control, estrogen or pregnant – If you take birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, your chances of DVT increase, because many of these drugs contain estrogen, which can cause clots.
- Dehydration – If your body doesn’t have enough fluid, your blood vessels narrow, and clots are more likely to form.
What You Can Do to Prevent DVT on Long Flights
Before you panic and think that you’ll never fly internationally again, it’s important to know that DVT is pretty easy to prevent. If I hadn’t been so lax about getting up and moving on that my flight, this never would have happened.
I’ve learned there are several steps you can take to prevent DVT on your next long-haul flight or train ride:
Get up and move or do foot exercises every two hours. Set an alarm if you have to! Flex and unflex your calf muscles to improve the flow of blood. Extend your legs straight out and flex your ankles (pulling your toes toward you). Some airlines suggest pulling each knee up toward the chest and holding it there with your hands on your lower leg for 15 seconds and repeat up to 10 times. These types of activities help to improve the flow of blood in your legs.
Stay well hydrated, but with water. Dehydration causes blood vessels to narrow and blood to thicken, raising the risk for blood clots. Staying well-hydrated improves circulation. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated tea, coffee, and soda, which are all mild diuretics. These types of drinks add to your risk for dehydration.
Wear compression socks! Knee-high compression socks encourage blood flow by applying gentle pressure from the ankle up.
Take low dose aspirin starting 2 days before your flight and throughout your vacation until you are home. Aspirin thins the blood which prevents clots.
I survived this DVT/PE scare thanks to a doctor who immediately diagnosed the situation and urged me to get a CT scan. I am thankful now and every day. After a six-month treatment of blood thinners, I now take baby aspirin every day, travel with a big bottle of water in my seat, and set my alarm get up and walk around every two hours. And of course, I proudly wear my cute compression socks!
Sherry Ott is a long-term traveler, blogger, and photographer with one goal in mind: to make you wish you were somewhere else. In her 11 years of living nomadically and traveling solo, she’s circled the globe multiple times visiting all 7 continents. She shares her epic adventures to intriguing places on Ottsworld.com in order to inspire people to overcome their fears and reap the benefits of travel.
You can read the full story of Sherry’s pulmonary embolism due to flying on Ottsworld.com.