When you travel long distances, sit around in an airplane for hours, or wait in airports for your connecting flights, you’ve probably wondered: “Why do my feet swell when I travel?”
Feet swelling while traveling is a common issue for men and women all over the world. The inactivity, the awkward position where we can’t really move the legs or have them horizontal to get some blood pumping through the lower limbs, or the standing around waiting for planes, buses and so on… all of these scenarios invite swollen feet and ankles and a general feeling of discomfort.
So, why do feet swell when you travel and how can you avoid or reduce the effects of this swelling? Through wearing compression socks, practicing some stretches and observing a few healthy habits, you can improve the feeling in your lower limbs when traveling and enjoy the journey a little bit more.
Read on to find out why your feet swell, how normal it is for them to be swollen after flights but also after walking, and how to prevent and reduce the effects of swelling while traveling.
Why Do My Feet Get Swollen When I Travel?
The connection between long traveling times and feet swelling is a known risk and cause for concern. In fact, the CDC warns about the possibility of developing blood clots (or Deep Vein Thrombosis) for those who travel on any mode of transportation for longer than four hours at a time.
Because you sit still in a confined space for a long period of time, blood clots can form in the deep veins on your legs. For many people, the blood clots dissolve on their own and no further damage is caused. However, repeated bouts of sitting completely immobile can increase your risk of DVT. The same is true for longer periods of inactivity – say, for example, a long-haul flight or train ride.
So, why does this happen? It’s quite simple: blood moves through the body, pushed by our heart beats, transporting oxygen to the muscles. When we move as we are meant to, staying active and doing a little bit of exercise every day, all functions as it should. But, when we simply do not move for long stretches of time, blood can pool at the lower extremities of our bodies – our feet and lower legs. This is what, in turn, leads to swelling – also known as edema – and, if aggravated, can create blood clots and DVT.
What Causes Swollen Feet and Ankles When You Fly?
It is most common for feet and ankles to swell a lot when we fly. Commercial airlines – especially when flying in coach – don’t allow much space for passengers to stretch their legs or move around during a flight. Moreover, it’s quite awkward to walk up and down the aisle of a plane midflight! As a result, many of us spend hours on end sitting in our seats, not moving our legs and feet.
As we’ve explained above, this inactivity leads to blood pooling around the lower extremities of your body. This is known as gravitational edema. Additionally, swelling is caused by retention of other fluids, too. In this case, water retention can be accelerated by dehydration, caused by the lower air pressure and humidity characteristic of plane flights.
Is It Normal for Your Feet to Swell on a Long Road Trip?
When the CDC emitted their warning of 4-hour long travel times causing edema and possibly DVT, they specifically addressed the fact that planes are not the only mode of transportation that will make your feet and ankles swell. As we’ve seen, the reason your feet swell on a plane is inactivity, made worse by dehydration.
The same lack of movement can have a negative effect on your legs and feet if you’re traveling in a car or on a train. Luckily, long road trips naturally need to be interrupted by comfort breaks. But, even in those cases, many of us don’t truly move all that much when we take our breaks. And, let’s face it: just like on the plane, cars and trains don’t give you all that much room to stretch, either!
As a result, you’ll get swollen ankles and feet from the blood pooling at your extremities during long road trips.
Why Your Feet Swell After Walking
While it may make sense to have your feet swelling while traveling and not moving around a lot, there’s also a real risk of swollen lower limbs when you do spend time on your feet. Walking around or standing up for prolonged periods of time is actually an issue, too. Although you’re active and your legs are not confined in a small space, the gravitational pull of your blood traveling down towards your feet can cause blood clots to form.
When you walk for a few hours, it’s good to stretch and shake out your legs a little bit when you take a break to avoid the swelling. Moreover, if you’re spending a whole day outside and the temperatures change or you go through humid spells, this will also have an effect on your feet swelling.
Finally, your diet can affect your feet swelling, too! Especially when you travel and you have less access to healthy foods, but also when you walk outdoors a lot and rely on energy drinks and food that are not your usual diet, this can impact your water retention. Notoriously, airplane food has a lot of sodium added to it, which causes feet and ankles to swell.
How to Prevent and Reduce Feet Swelling While Traveling
While you will not be able to increase your space for moving around on a plane, and can’t quite do much about having to stand around for hours at a conference if that’s your job, you can definitely use a few tips and tricks to prevent feet swelling or to reduce the effect of the swelling once it’s happened.
Wear Compression Socks
One of the best ways to help your blood circulation during travels is by wearing compression socks. Through applying gentle pressure to your lower limbs, compression garments (leggings included) stimulate normal blood flow and prevent it from pooling around your ankles and feet.
Moreover, there are lots of options of compression socks for hikers, walkers and people who spend lots of time on their feet. Merino wool socks are ideal for regulating the temperature and keeping your feet dry and comfortable in almost any condition, for example.
Watch Your Diet
As we’ve mentioned, airplane food is full of added sodium, as is most snack food readily available in convenience stores and take-away places. When you’re traveling, it can be really hard to find healthy food, so you’ll need to make more of an effort to do so. The same goes for being at all-day events and conferences or working on your feet all day (like nurses) and not having the time to take many breaks to look for healthy options.
It's a good idea to bring some home-made snacks if you can, or reach for fruits and vegetables as much as possible.
To counteract the effects of low air pressure and humidity on planes, drink water regularly and continuously throughout your journey. This will prevent the puffiness that you get from sodium and dehydration working together to lead to swollen feet and ankles.
Move Your Body
Finally, movement is key to combatting swollen feet and legs. You may not have a lot of space at your disposal when traveling, but here are some easier ways to add some movement into your lower limbs regardless:
- Massage your feet and calves. This helps increase blood circulation and can be very pleasant – find out how to do it here.
- Elevate your feet if you can. Even just placing them on your carry-on bag for a few minutes can help a lot. Removing your shoes is also a good idea for sleeping on the plane.
- Rotate and flex ankles and knees. This doesn’t require much space: draw small circles clockwise, then anti-clockwise with your feet. Point your toes, then flex your ankles with your toes coming up towards your face. Move your toes around, waving each toe. When you get up, try to do a few short squats (or half-squats) to get your knees flexing a bit. All of these movements will push blood back into your limbs and reduce the swelling.
- We also have a collection of long-haul flight exercises you can try here.
All of these tips also work for long days spent standing around. And, if you’re walking a lot, stretch well once you stop, too.
Should You Be Concerned About Feet Swelling While Traveling?
Most of us will experience a form of feet swelling while traveling, and there is no need to be concerned about it. As mentioned above, sometimes small blood clots form and dissolve by themselves. Puffiness caused by too much sodium and/or dehydration also tends to resolve itself in time and with a good diet.
The main reason to be concerned about the swelling is if it tends to go on for too long. Excessive swelling, persisting for several hours after you start moving again, could point to some underlying condition and should be investigated.
When to Call Your Doctor
You should speak to a doctor if your foot swelling isn’t showing signs of going down even after you’ve stretched, moved around, and several hours have passed after your inactivity. More importantly, if only one of your legs is swollen or if you start to feel pain, you should see a medical professional right away.
Finally, if you know you are prone to blood clots, you should check in with your doctor before you plan any air travel. They’ll advise if it’s safe to travel after, for example, a recent major surgery. They could prescribe some blood thinning medication to prevent blood clots and may also advise that you wear compression socks during the flight.