2017-12-01 / OnCall

Footloose on Long Flights

Cynthia Alexander, MD

Q: For the holidays, we’re flying to visit our family in California. On long flights, my feet always swell up and remain uncomfortable for at least a day. What’s the best way to avoid this?

A: Prolonged swelling like this can occur for a number of reasons. Barring any underlying health conditions that you may have that are known to cause swelling, like certain kidney or heart diseases, the swelling is likely caused by general inactivity during the flight. Sitting for long periods of time with your feet on the floor causes blood to pool and increases pressure in the veins.
The good news is there are several things that you can do to prevent swelling during long trips. Start by drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothes during the flight, and be sure to flex your calf muscles and extend your knees and ankles often. Shift your position in your seat, but avoid crossing your legs if you can, and get up and walk around every hour or so. You’ll also want to avoid excess alcohol intake.
It’s important to note that if you’ve recently had surgery, you may be at a higher risk of developing blood clots and should consult your doctor before flying. He or she may recommend compression stockings or even prescribe a blood thinning medication in some cases.
Besides being uncomfortable, foot and leg swelling for a short period of time isn’t a serious problem. If, however, the swelling doesn’t subside at least slightly after a few hours of activity, it’s a good idea to reach out to your doctor.

Cynthia Alexander, MD
Mount Nittany Physician Group 
Internal MedicineCynthia Alexander, MD Mount Nittany Physician Group Internal Medicine

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